Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Coffee and Compassion

I saw something lovely this morning...

I was at Philz Coffee, hoping to do some prayerful journaling and have a little reflection time before diving into the busyness of my work day.

I placed my order, found a table in the common room, went downstairs to pay for my tea and there witnessed a sweet scene going on. There were two uniformed police offers, one man & one woman, and two or three men in street clothes with them (friends? co-workers out of uniform?), talking and getting coffee. One of the latter was trying to pay for the group's coffees, while the uniformed officers were leaning in on either side of him; from what I could tell, trying to get their money to the cashier instead. The cashier said, don't worry, it's good - already paid. When they asked, the cashier pointed out a man standing at the counter. He was in casual clothes with a strand of wooden Buddhist prayer beads around his neck. He smiled when they thanked him and said he really appreciates all that they do.

A small thing, but a kind one. 

The officers and their friends moved to a high table across the room from the one I was seated at, chatting and laughing boisterously together. One of the men in uniform opened a home-wrapped sandwich and started eating it. This made me smile because earlier when I entered the cafe I had walked past their group and overheard them bantering and discussing it, teasing him a little as someone said "wow! I can't remember the last time my wife made me a sandwich... maybe not ever." The group laughed good-naturedly and I smiled, hoping that maybe the speaker's wife would do so for him sometime soon.

A small thing, done with love.

So why a story about coffee and sandwiches? What does this have to do with my religious growth and journey? Everything, really.

I have been reading and listening to a book in the past few weeks called, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. It is the account of an extraordinary and poignantly sweet discussion between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso; two world-renowned and esteemed octogenarian faith leaders from very different traditions having a deep and inspiring conversation about the nature of human relatedness and how to bring more joy into a world rife with pain and hardship for so very many people. They spoke not about brief, fleeting happiness based on material objects or situations but finding and creating deep, true joy that can transform our lives and the lives of others, even - or perhaps especially - in the midst of suffering. I've been touched by listening to the conversation and know that I will read it over again when I get the chance, to delve further into what these amazing men have to say. When I pulled up to Philz this morning, listening to the audio version, the discussion was on the joy we get from giving, from showing compassion and bringing joy to another. It can be so simple to do a small kindness for another person; just a little something letting them know that you appreciate them, that you see them and acknowledge their co-humanity with you.

And then, getting back to the officers, this happened - which struck me deeply enough that I felt compelled to share it with the local news source (Berkeleyside), in case they might be able to pass on my appreciation to the officers by posting it.

Kindness leading to kindness.

It was a lovely early morning hour. I got the journaling, prayer and reflection time I'd been hoping for - though certainly not in the manner I'd expected - and an extra dose of faith in humanity to-boot, just from seeing these random acts of compassion unfolding around me. Perhaps in reading this, you will also receive a bit of joy or faith to take with you in your day, or will do something kind for another person; and the cycle will continue. As the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama have said, it's all about the joy we can find by giving joy to others.

Wishing you joy! ~ Ari

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

That Time When I Was Mistaken for a Member of the KKK While Administering Holy Ashes

Perhaps I should take a moment to back up and explain.

Today is Ash Wednesday: the beginning of the season of Lent and one of the more somber days on the church calendar. It's also a particular favorite of mine. Ash Wednesday is for reflection, slowing down, looking at where you may have strayed away from God and discerning what you might do to bring yourself closer over the next 40 days in preparation for Easter. To mark the beginning of Lent (after the pancake-and-Jambalaya feast of Mardi Gras - Fat Tuesday), many Christians engage in the practice of memento mori: recalling that "we are dust and to dust we shall return", and sealing that reminder with a smudge of ashes made from burnt Palm Sunday palm fronds imposed on the forehead, usually in the shape of a cross.

Two years ago, a parishioner at my church began a wonderful ministry called Ashes on the Way - sending lay ministers to nearby locations with ashes and prayer cards, to offer to folks who for various reasons might not otherwise have the opportunity to mark the beginning of Lent with ashes. To many this tradition is held very dear and serves as a transition point to bring them into the Lenten season.

Last year (my first time helping to bring ashes to the streets) there were four of us and we wore everyday clothes. This year, seven people participated, in morning and afternoon shifts. There were four of us again at BART for the noon lunch commute and in hopes of being more recognizable in our role and bringing more people in to talk to us, we wore albs: white ankle-length robes, with rope cinctures to belt them.

So try and picture this for a moment: four well-meaning Episcopalians wearing long, white robes, some with hoods down against our shoulders, standing on the sidewalk in front of the Downtown Berkeley BART station. In 2017. In our current political climate. It may be that we didn't think this through all the way. Among business-suited commuters, folks rushing to or from errands and tourists of every sort, there were a large number of African American teens - most likely returning to Berkeley High after lunch. Some looked at us oddly, one or two did a double-take and then one boy said,
"Wow, look - KKK!"
I was caught off-guard but quickly turned and replied "no, not at all" with a smile and we kept walking. The next group gave us the same, wary looks. Right. Four White people (granted, we were all women) standing on the sidewalk in long, white robes. Got it. Yikes.

We discussed whether maybe we should lose the albs altogether, but decided to give it a little time and see whether we couldn't use it as an opportunity to engage people. So we started to ask folks who walked by whether they would like ashes for Ash Wednesday, making it a point to direct the question especially towards younger people of color and others who gave us that particular look that we'd quickly come to understand meant, "What are Klan people doing in Berkeley?" One African American woman probably in her seventies came up to us happily, to receive ashes. There had been some teens near her talking about us, and she said, I know you're not Ku Klux Klan. I told them - you're Sisters! God gave me the ability to discern and I know you don't have evil in you. But some of these younger folks don't - so I told them." It was a truly lovely moment.

We split into two pairs to take different BART entryways and proceeded to ask, smile, mark foreheads with ashes, inform people about what we were doing and share a few prayer cards.

Offer, smile, smudge, rinse, repeat.

We were a LOT busier than we'd been last year; enough so, that we gave up on the original plan - one of us placing ashes and the other handing out cards - and both opened our containers of ash so we could give them to everyone who wanted them!

We often missed people who walked behind or around us while we were engaged with others, including a new group of African American teens, most of them girls, who gave us looks and started chatting excitedly amongst themselves. One girl came towards me, evidently having told one of her friends to take a picture of her standing next to the women in (unbelievably!) long, white robes.

As she approached, I smiled and asked, "would you like ashes for Ash Wednesday?"... and she stopped, with a surprised look on her face. Then her face lit up and she smiled back at me and said, "OH!"... and then, "Yes!". I imposed the ashes on her forehead and she turned and ran back to her group, laughing.

As they headed on their way, I heard a couple of them question her (why she'd talked to me, I'm guessing) and she said, in a clear voice that carried quite well and as if she'd known it all the time, "What were YOU thinking? It's Ash Wednesday, bitches!"


Friday, February 19, 2016

On the Way with Ashes

I was originally going to title this post, Get Your Ash Over Here; but I'm pretty sure that sort of thing is frowned upon, and I don't want anyone to think I'm belittling or being dismissive about a practice that actually touched me very deeply. But this is about a "Takin' it to the Streets" kind of thing, and it seemed like maybe a little levity was allowable. And besides, I was reminded that last year some Lutheran churches used Get Your Ash in Church for their Ash Wednesday signage; so I'm not the only one who couldn't resist the word-play. What? Lent? Oh alright then - I will rescind the alternate title suggestion. As of the end of this paragraph, you can strike that from the record...

The point is - ashes. And not just any old fireplace or even bonfire ashes... palm ashes by way of what is lovingly called at our church, the Holy Hibachi. So, ashes. In a pyx (do I get extra points for using one of last week's vocabulary words?). On the way to... wherever.

Three fellow parishioners and I met up at Downtown Berkeley BART on Ash Wednesday, for Ashes on the Way. Folks were coming and going to and from wherever they were coming and going to and from, and we were there to offer and provide ashes to anyone who wanted or needed them to help get the Season of Lent underway. Emily met me first and we chatted while waiting for Danielle who had the signs. Danielle arrived, bringing  two pyxes (or... pyxies? Pixies! Hmm... ashes as fairy dust...), a bunch of lovely wallet-sized prayer cards, larger handouts describing Memento Mori (with Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer on the back) and two great A-frame chalkboards for signage (which I thought were hugely helpful).

Caitlin joined us (you know, with a B-named person, we would have had A, B, C, D and E... oops, sorry... shiny moment) and we split into two pairs, with Danielle & Caitlin going across the street to another BART entryway while Emily & I stayed put. I'd love to say, "and ashes were had by all"... but no; certainly not in the secular and largely academic People's Republic of Berkeley - I've lived here too long to expect that. Ashes were, however, had by many - along with smiles, conversations, prayer cards and explanations about Memento Mori (have you Googled it yet?).

There's something about bringing the sacred out to meet others where they are, that calls to me... that calls me. When people approached (or replied to our invitation - we didn't always wait silently, it's true), we shared stories, imposed ashes, chatted, taught a little, and even agreed to a free hug or two... it was street ministry, and I found myself in a sacramental experience in the way that St. Augustine defined it - sharing "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace". We were there to serve, to practice loving our neighbors and to be conduits for that grace by way of ash and prayer... as I've often heard at church, "blessed to be a blessing to others".

I feel strongly (and tend to get excited) about different ministries both within and outside of church walls and Sundays, and have been questioned about it by a few people who were concerned when I said (rather enthusiastically), "This feels like something I'm really called to" or "this is what I'm supposed to be doing" more than once... or twice. Welcome to my Shiny Thoughts. Remember? "Look - squirrel!" Right. It's for reals. At the risk of sounding defensive (though I hope not), I'm actually not fickle (or dishonest, or confused, or undecided)... rather, I'm open to change, adaptable, excited about new opportunities and have always had the ability to feel the sacred in many different places; especially that last one. Each thing I've learned on this journey, each new ministry I've undertaken, has touched me deeply, changed me in some way and become dear to me.  And I feel I've come to that place in the way I agreed to at my Baptism: in community and with God's help. I haven't done and can't do any of this alone... it's taken a lot of prayer, meditation, contemplation, Sundays in church and knowing I have a family, a parish and a school full of people behind me to get to where I am now... and I have to say, I like the view from here. Ashes on the Way is my new Best Thing Ever in ministry, and I have a feeling it will be for a long time to come... and... I can't wait to see what the Spirit brings me to next.


Friday, January 8, 2016

The Not-so-silent Letter "B"

So, a couple of months ago I was asked to write an article for an online magazine called Episcopal Cafe. I've followed it for a while and have enjoyed many of the articles and the discussions they provoke, and frankly felt honored to do it. I was going to copy what I wrote here and started a draft post but never got around to doing anything with it until today... because a message I received fulfilled my reason for posting it. The article is titled, "Where Are the B in LGBT?" and I've linked to it here so copying verbatim seems unnecessary - besides their readership far (Far) outstrips mine.

I'm bisexual (I think I've mentioned this already, but for the record), monogamously married and (barring that brief stint in the LDS church) have always been comfortable with my identity. The article is about invisibility and the (seeming) lack of bisexuals everywhere, specifically in the Episcopal Church. It's about why it's so very important for our voices to be heard.

I was contacted this morning by someone I'd never met before, "D", who looked me up to share his story with me. He is lay not ordained, married and new to the EC. D read my article and says he was inspired by it and felt it was time to be open about who he really is and come out as bisexual. He invited me to read the blog post he'd put up today, and I was deeply moved. I am humbled by the bravery of people (yes, I mean you) and the workings of Grace.

God's Grace is everywhere around us. It's in large and small things, in thin places and in crowded cities, in quiet contemplation, and cacophony... and it's made itself apparent in the life of one more person who now feels OK with himself and knows that God loves him as he is.

How many more moments of Grace might be waiting to happen?

Where will it strike next?


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Abolishing Religion

I'm getting tired of the assertion that "religion" - maybe I should say, "Religion" with a capital R - is responsible for all the evils in the world and the idea that all Christians (or Muslims, or other people of faith for that matter) are ignorant, fanatical and intolerant. I have increasingly seen variations on these themes, mostly by people identifying as agnostic, atheist, New Age or "spiritual-but-not-religious", often implying or culminating in the idea that if we banned or abolished all religion, this would go away.  No more evil, no more bad or hateful or harmful people left to lash out at others. No more rape or murder; no more war. Which are lovely "no"s to be sure, and I'm all for them.

But here's a thing or two. Thing One: Most wars are (historically) not fought over or backed by religion. For more on the causes of wars, here's a short, factual article from a Catholic blog and a completely secular opinion as well. Thing Two: to "abolish religion" is to rescind people's rights to their own beliefs and spiritual practices, to force them to go into hiding when they worship and persecute them. It's been tried in several places throughout history, including Sudan, Israel-Palestine and Nazi Germany... not really with favorable outcomes. I can't help but think that rather then getting rid of faith-based communities ("organized religion"), if more people actually paid CLOSER attention to the various paths to God they profess to follow, and made MORE of an effort to "be religious", there would be more peace-, charity- and love-based interaction and far fewer wars and hate crimes. Hatred is not at the core of any religion; not Islam, not Christianity, not Wicca, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Paganism, Satanism (truly), Jainism or any other. Religion doesn't breed hatred - intolerance does. And from what I've seen, atheists and agnostics are as likely to be intolerant and hateful as religious fanatics - they just don't (or don't always) use God as an excuse.

Are there hateful, angry extremists who rail against others in the name of God? Yes. Are some heinous crimes committed by religious fanatics or in the name of a particular religion? Yes - of course. They have been throughout history and modern ones make great, sensational news headlines (the more horrific the better, it seems). AND, as the links above reflect... heinous crimes have also been committed throughout history and still are in modern times, without religion behind them.  People are, by nature, competitive, greedy, power-hungry, frightened, covetous - as well as kind, considerate, foolish, fallible, thoughtful, vengeful, loving, imperfect... there's a reason we have so many words to describe human emotions, moods and behaviors. What it comes down to is this: we don't need less religion in the world, nor would that create the change so desperately needed; we need less hatred, less intolerance, more love and more effort to live together on this planet peacefully.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Love Wins!

I am SO excited today - much work left to be done in many directions, (racial disparity, gun violence and equal pay for women, to name a few) but it's such a huge step forward and a true cause for celebration!

Oh - what am I talking about? Right - this may be read on another day or by someone who hasn't heard yet. (Is that last possible?) Today, the Supreme Court overturned various states' bans on same-sex marriage and made marriage equality the Law of the Land. I heard the announcement while I was driving to work, and found myself in tears and thinking of so many friends and friends-of-friends who are no longer among us and didn't get to live to see this day, or to marry the person they loved. Joy and sadness... but the joy is overwhelming.

I received a petition request (this one) in my inbox a few hours after The Decision, and I hit the link to sign it. It's actually surprised me how effective these can be, and Lord knows I like to share my opinions. The email I received started with this:
The Supreme Court just made history, establishing marriage equality as the law of the land. The religious right is already erupting into hysterics, declaring that "Satan is dancing with delight." Mike Huckabee claims the decision is repealing "the laws of nature and nature's God." The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says it's "profoundly immoral" and that it will harm children.
The petition form I signed asked me whether I'd like to add a personal comment (that opinion thing again - of course I did) and once I had, it asked me to share all this through social media, to show that not all Christians feel the need to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference. I don't tweet or Instagram or whatnot, so I clicked on the Facebook icon... and then knew this would take a little explaining. Here is what I posted to Facebookistan and all those friends and family of mine who inhabit it. Well, and to anyone else who happens upon them - perhaps those even more.

So before my secular friends and those of various other faiths look down to the bottom of this post and ask why I feel the need to be supportive specifically "as a Christian"... I add my voice in as a Christian to counteract the evil, hateful rhetoric being slung by some outspoken Christians whose views I do not support, and who don't speak for me (or my church - or I would not have become a member). Jesus taught love, not hatred.
So "as a Christian" (as well as, as a human being): Granting marriage equality in no way harms children or families - in fact, it helps and heals them in many ways including "legitimizing" children born to or adopted by same-sex couples*, which I would think Catholics should support. As far as Christian Biblical citations: Jesus never said anything against (or about) homosexuality. He said to love God, who is in everything (and we in God - Episcopalians are fond of saying, "... in whom we live and move and have our being") and love your "neighbor", who is everyone. This ruling was and is about treating human beings with respect and correcting a dire wrong against innocent people that has been perpetuated for far too long. The healing process has begun, and as Jesus taught... Love wins.
If you are of like mind, please do "like", share, discuss, forward and/or sign this petition... it's about time our voices were heard.
I am an Episcopalian and a happy member of the Christian Left - and I approve this message.

* ...and allows them to be step-parents and legal guardians of their spouse's children, to advocate for each other and their children in times of medical or other crises, not to mention being given the respect and dignity that straight Americans and their families have enjoyed since the founding of the country)... and more...


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Looking Through the Salidor

For years I wondered what a salidor was. 

Or rather I didn’t really wonder, so much as take it on best authority – that of my elementary school peers –  that there was such a thing. It was from a sing-song rhyme, the kind that little girls sing together with increasingly intricate hand-clapping patterns on the schoolyard at recess.

I didn’t know what a salidor was, but (1) I wasn’t going to show my ignorance by asking, and (2) I knew it was something you got to after sliding or climbing down a rainbarrow… or some such – may as well use “rainbow”, since that makes more sense, right? At any rate, it obviously had to do with friends coming over to play.  Obviously. I may have been corrected once or twice on the finer points, but I’m sure I would hear none of it; I was RIGHT (just ask my 7-year-old self), and that’s just what it was. Sometimes there were words we didn’t understand, but as long as you sounded like you got it, it was OK – sing it with confidence! At any rate, for some reason I woke up with this rhyme in my head the other day and it made me think of how songs and stories get passed down through oral tradition.

If you’ve ever played a game of “Telephone” at camp or in school, or sung nursery rhymes or children's songs that someone else learned from someone else… you’ll get the idea. Things change over time and over distance as they get handed down and passed around. Things, for example, like what a teacher said.

There was this interesting experiment I remember hearing about in an introductory Sociology class when I was first in college: A class was in session (high school? I can’t recall), and suddenly someone burst into the room, late. He had an altercation with the teacher involving the student swearing and possibly threatening the teacher and was finally told or made to leave – I don’t remember all the details. Once he was gone and the disruption over, the teacher asked the class to please write down what had just happened, in case it was needed later. The students wrote their papers and handed them in as they left. A few days later, the principal (or other authority figure) came in and explained that there might be a disciplinary case around this and it was important that they understand what happened and who was at fault. He asked the class to please write down again what had happened. The principal took these papers and left. A week or so later, the class’ teacher explained that something had happened to the original papers and they were missing – he apologized and asked the students to please try to recall as much of the incident as they could and to please re-write their observations for him, which they did.

This had actually been an experiment, the scene planned out ahead of time. The papers had all been saved and when compared, each person’s re-telling of the account varied – sometimes hugely – both from what actually happened and from the same person’s other accounts. Papers from the same person also differed depending upon whom they had been written for – the teacher or the principal/authority figure. I was fascinated by this. The experiment looked at how events are (1) observed by different people, (2) recorded, (3) changed over time if asked to re-record them and (4) altered depending upon whom they were written for or trying to appease or impress.

I may not be recalling the story of this process completely accurately – I intentionally didn’t look it up before writing this, because it addresses my point. If you'd asked me 10 years ago... or right after I'd taken the class... I'm sure I'd have a better and more accurate memory of the details.

You can probably see where this is going.

The most frustrating thing for me and I think for many, in studying scripture, is trying to figure out what may actually have happened and what might actually have been said. Much is allegorical, parable, bigger Truths explained in story; but someone had to have said and  done at least some of these things, or they wouldn’t have been recorded.

The Bible is a collection of stories, accounts and observances. For the sake of paring it down a bit, I’m just looking at the New Testament right now. Let’s call it given that a man named Jesus lived. He was a traveling rabbi, a Jewish teacher, and taught what seemed to many a new and interesting message about God. This teacher said exciting and subversive things! He questioned the status quo, spoke out against rules that were in place and enforced for their own sake, that were “of man” rather than “of God”; he spoke with authority, as if he had first-hand knowledge, and took the titles of the Roman emperor, the ruling power of the day, for himself: Prince of Peace, Anointed One, Son of God. He healed people on any day of the week (including the Sabbath, when one was not supposed to do any work), shared meals with outcasts and pariahs, called priests in the Temple “thieves” or “robbers” for charging people money to come pray and offer sacrifices and he taught that following strict laws about what one can or can’t eat was not nearly as important as what was in a person’s heart and how one acted in the world.

We know about this rabbi named Jesus because there were crowds of people who listened to him and followed him, and some of them told what they’d heard to others, who in turn passed it on. To make it even more confusing, some of what was written had to do with what Jesus and others did, and some of it was about parables – made up stories that carry and exemplify truths about the world and how we are in it – that the rabbi told. From playing Telephone, I’ve heard what a simple sentence can sound like just 10 people and 3 minutes later; “Hi, I’m Jack Robinson – tell what you know” can easily turn into, “Hire Jack Robbins and Tellie wants snow” – or something even less coherent than that. If a story or an occurrence (or a song, or a joke) is told several times a day to different people, and each of them passes it on… speaking it many times and over a period of many years, to many more people… what will it sound like 40 to 60 years later, when it finally gets written down? Or even if some of the writers were students of people who followed this rabbi, putting to paper what they’d been orally taught… you’re still looking at second-generation (at best) re-telling of events that someone is pulling up from memory.

Now wait for over 1000 years or so, read these many-times-told stories and accounts that are in an ancient language and written in and for an entirely different time and social structure; translate them into Latin and marinate for a few hundred more years, then translate the messages and teachings again into another language – this time commonly spoken (16th century English, for example), so that even more people can understand. Once that is done, allow scholars from different parts of the world to have access to these several-times-translated stories and accounts, and assume that each translates these into their own language – or the same language through different perspectives or understanding of the original text - each using the accepted norms of the day and place they’re in, and/or that translator’s personal biases. Shake and stir. Go back to the oldest translation you can find, learn the language it’s in and try to read it. Then re-translate it all over again. Telephone.

Can you pull the really important bits out of what you now have? Will you worry over whether there were 12 or 13 apostles? Just men or women as well? Whether Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey or a horse (or both)? Why different gospels tell the same story slightly differently? Or will you look for what the point of it all was, try to understand the meanings underneath, look for what's relevant and ascertain how these might be helpful to you in living day-to-day?

Many years after learning the rhyme – many years and experiences later – when the tune came to mind, I was able to re-fit the sounds I remembered into actual words and speech patterns. It made me smile:

            Say, say, oh playmate, come out and play with me
            And bring your dollies three, climb up my apple tree
            Climb down my rain barrel, into my cellar door

  And we’ll be jolly friends forever more!