a plain confessional box with a small window next to an arched stained glass window with a cross in the middle and light streaming through

Holy Hearing & Holy Forgetting

a plain confessional box with a small window next to an arched stained glass window with a cross in the middle and light streaming through

Lenten confession

When it comes to confession, Anglicans have historically leaned hard on the “none must” part of the traditional phrase, “all may, some should, none must.” Confession is a scary thing to contemplate. It’s too Catholic. It’s too old fashioned. It’s too …. vulnerable. Many Episcopalians and Anglicans I’ve met aren’t even aware that private confession is available to them. It’s a rare thing to see drop-in times listed on the sign outside an Episcopal church, the way there often are on Catholic ones.

While it’s true that we don’t believe sacramental, private confession is a requirement for every Christian, over my years as a priest, there has scarcely been a greater privilege than to hear the confessions of penitent sinners, and proclaim to them that their sins are forgiven. The first parish I served was pretty high up the candle, so I had heard ten confessions before I did my first baptism. Some people made appointments to come and see me before a big gnarly medical procedure that frightened them. Other people came during drop-in times, because it was routine for them. A habit. Whatever their reason, they all left with their shoulders a little lighter for the sharing of something that had burdened them.

As a semi-regular penitent myself, I’ve felt the lightening of the load that comes from receiving the good news that my sins are forgiven. No matter what I’ve done, no matter how big a mistake I’ve made, God forgives me. No matter how mad someone else might be at me, no matter how much I still might need to make amends to them, God forgives me. I’ve recently gotten into the mindfulness trend of building stillness into my day, and sitting quietly with a meditation app when I get stressed, but there is no app like hearing another human being who has heard the very worst things I have ever done respond by telling me God still loves me.

No matter your denomination, no matter your relationship with the tradition of private, sacramental confession, there is value to the ritual of making regular, intentional confession. While it’s something you could begin to practice on your own – lighting a candle, perhaps, and kneeling in the privacy of your own room – I strongly believe that having a human listener is what makes private confession so powerful. For many people, one of the benefits of therapy is being able to tell another person your worst thoughts, the worst things that ever happened to you, and to have that person tell you that so many others have experienced that same feeling. That you’re “normal.” We so often feel very alone, and it’s comforting to hear that other people are in the same boat.

So if you can, find a confessor. Some evangelical traditions have relationships called “accountability partners.” What if you found someone, not to judge you and keep you to account, but to tell you, regularly tell you, how much God loves you in the face of the worst things you’ve ever done? Someone you could trust to keep that secret? While Anglican sacramental theology would encourage that to be an ordained person, entrusted with the authority to administer God’s sacraments, there’s no reason that for Christians with different theological views it couldn’t be a trusted friend of any order of ministry. Read more

painting of a bearded man with eyes closed and calm look on face, with hands held open with fingers pointing upward, near the face

Confession: Holy Peace

John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

painting of a bearded man with eyes closed and calm look on face, with hands held open with fingers pointing upward, near the face

Waiting For the Word

Anyone who knows me well has heard my story about confession. Actually, you don’t even have to know me well to have heard my story because I’ve preached on it, I lead with it in my book on confession, and I often use it to describe what it feels like to hear a confession.

As an Episcopal priest, I have the honor of occasionally hearing people’s private confessions. These are sacred moments when people get to lay down the burdens that they have been carrying – burdens of guilt, shame, and the pain that comes from knowing you have done something that has put you out of relationship with those you love. In this role, I continually run up against the need to let the weight of my own sin go as well as helping others do the same. It is an awesome responsibility. And because of my story, I know the importance and magnitude of what can happen when that option and gift is denied to someone.

My story goes something like this: When I was young I decided I would like to try private confession. As an Episcopalian, I’d only experienced corporate confession on Sundays. Since my church did not openly advertise the rite of reconciliation, I decided to go to a local Roman Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday (by skipping class with my friend – which was the first sin I was planning on confessing). They were offering private confession to those who wanted to begin Lent free from the burden of their sin.

As I took my place in the surprisingly long line up, I began to catalog my sins. My trespasses and brokenness began to weigh heavily on my soul. I thought of more and more ways that I had “wronged” God. By the time I finally took my turn in the confessional, I was not only on the verge of tears, I was incredibly elated by the idea of being able to “get rid” of the sins that had tarnished my soul.

As I stepped in the confessional, I decided that I should not add to this list of sins by lying to the priest and told him right away that I was not a Roman Catholic. I told him that if he would listen to my confession, I would feel lighter and understood if he could not offer me absolution as an Episcopalian. He replied, “No. Please leave now.” Read more

Leaven

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Matthew 13:33

A fresh sourdough loaf made from the author’s starter, Sid.

A fresh sourdough loaf made from the author’s starter, Sid.

My mom baked bread when I was a young child. I can still remember the bread pans overflowing with honey-colored dough and the steam rising as she cut the first slice. But as I grew, and as our lives grew busier, somewhere along the way the hot loaves of honey wheat bread were replaced with loaves of cracked wheat from the grocery store. Still, the memories of my mother’s bread led me to want to try making bread myself. My own adventures in bread baking began in high school when my gadget-loving dad provided me with a bread machine. Although the bread from the machine was definitely tastier than the store-bought variety, I quickly lost interest in the process. I wanted more of a challenge, so I decided to make honey wheat bread the way my mom made it. The ingredient list was long: yeast, cottage cheese, honey, milk, and two kinds of flour. But it never called for leaven.

Though I was familiar with Jesus’ parable about leaven, at the time I didn’t understand that leaven was more than just Bible-speak for active dry yeast–the only kind of yeast I had known it in its scientifically isolated form. So my bread baking went on as usual until I happened upon a documentary about sourdough bread and the fermentation process used to make it. The documentary described the way that bread was made throughout the world for centuries before scientists were able to capture yeast and put it in a powdered form. I was mesmerized by the ancient bread-making practice that unfolded in the documentary, and I was determined to try it. Read more

Channeling Your Inner Leper

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” ~Luke 17:11-18

4101881178_fefea807b5_zI think a lot about the lepers these days. In my current ministry setting of waiting tables at a restaurant, I am asked for a lot of things every shift. A. Lot. More napkins? Sure. Another Coke? Absolutely. A seventh basket of chips and salsa (yes, seven!)? I’ll be right back. It’s my job to meet these needs the best way I can while doing what is right for the customer. So I grab a clean fork when you drop yours on the floor and remember the lemons and deposit them on the table with a smile. The words I only hear sometimes are “thank you.” I get ignored, I get looked at, people are rude, or stare at their phones not even noticing that someone has just set a plate hot enough to boil water on their table. I would venture to say that about 50% of the time, the people who sit at restaurant tables do not say “thank you” during their entire visit. Which is why it is so noticeable to me when they do.

So I think about the lepers. Especially that last one – the one who took the effort to go back to Jesus after he had received what he desired to say “thank you.” As the text makes clear, the leper is an outsider and one who is very different from Jesus. Which, to me, makes the act even more noticeable. I wonder how Jesus reacted, internally. Did he smile inside? Did he feel a sense of accomplishment? Did he feel valued and noticed? Those emotions are ones that many of us feel when someone says “thank you.” Read more

The Granting of Passage

Photo provided by the author

Photo provided by the author

I travelled abroad for the first time when I was six. Along with my parents and my then two-year-old brother we went with some family friends to stay in a large house in Brittany, France. From what I remember, the house had a big yard that was perfect for playing in (especially water fights!), we spent a lot of time on the beach at the end of the road where I learned to swim, and we walked up to the local boulangerie each morning for fresh bread – trois baguettes s’il vous plait – being the key phrase to remember.

My father drove us from our home in south London via the Portsmouth to Cherbourg ferry to the village of St Marguerite. It felt like it took forever. But it was straightforward. We drove to Portsmouth, sat (or in my case, played) on a ferry for a few hours, and then drove to our final destination. My parents had applied for and been granted one of those family passports that enabled us to all travel on one document. The passport was blue and the clerk who issued it had filled out the salient details by hand.

A passport is exactly what it says on the cover – a pass port – a document that enables the holder to travel internationally, ‘without let or hindrance.’ Or at least that’s what it says on the inside of my British passport anyway. A passport enables the holder to travel with the stated protection of their government asking that the government of the territory to be crossed allow safe passage. Interestingly, the earliest mention of a passport occurs in the Bible, in the book of Nehemiah,

Then I said to the king, If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah Nehemiah 2.7 NRSV.

When I recently travelled to Greece to meet refugees and visit agencies supporting refugees, I became very aware very quickly of the privilege it is to hold a passport that enables me to travel freely. A British passport allows the holder visa-free travel to 156 countries. According to the United Nations there are currently 206 sovereign states in the world so a UK passport holder can travel freely to just shy of 3/4 of the countries in the world; that same person can likely obtain a visa to visit most of the others without too much difficulty. Provided, of course, that one has the cash to pay for a ticket to travel and to cover the cost of the trip.

While in Greece most of the refugees that I met came from the following nations: Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is perhaps no coincidence that according to the passport index these are the five weakest passports in the world (weakest meaning that holding one allows for free travel to the least number of states); an Afghan passport holder can travel freely to a mere 24 nations, Pakistan 27, Iraq 30, and Syria and Somalia 32 a piece. These were people who, even on a good day, do not enjoy the same privilege of being able to travel that I have.

Which country any of us end up being a national of is mostly down to luck. I did not choose to be British anymore than Ameera*, a refugee I met, chose to be Syrian. That was decided for each of us according to who our parents were, and the country in which we each happened to be born. The fairness of that reality is currently a much-contested political issue as the European Union debates the current migrant crisis, and the people of the United Kingdom go to the polls to decide whether or not Great Britain will remain a member state in the aforementioned European Union. Personally I would not like to see my British passport become ‘weaker’ but I think I would like Ameera’s to be ‘stronger.’ One of the difficulties of course is that Ameera’s government is in no position to protect Ameera from harm when she’s asleep in her own bed never mind when she’s living in a refugee camp in Greece. The UK government, for all its faults, doesn’t for the most part do too badly at ensuring the security of the people within its jurisdiction.

So with my passport and credit card in hand I can book a ticket, board a plane, and travel pretty much anywhere in the world “without let or hindrance” and expect at least a reasonable welcome when I arrive. Billions of people in the world do not have that advantage – and that’s what I mean by privilege here – an advantage. Hundreds of thousands of people in the world are currently living in refugee camps, and they have the least advantage to travel at all. Not all refugee camps are ‘locked’ – in fact the government camps in Greece only ‘restrict the liberty’ of the refugees that they host for the first 25 days after they arrive in the country. Refugees are people fleeing war, drought, famine or other threat of life and limb; whatever else they are, they are not criminals (or at least they are not criminals by virtue of being a refugee). They deserve to have their story heard, their case heard fairly and justly, and if a reasonable legal process agrees that they are wherever they are as a result of fleeing war, famine, pestilence or persecution, they deserve to have the opportunity to build a new life for themselves and their loved ones. And what is wrong with that.

I will never take my passport for granted again. A question that I have now been asked several times is how joining the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland trip to Greece has changed me. This is one way. I love to travel, I find it energising and life-giving. But I now know a tiny bit of the privilege of being able to travel freely, and of the advantage of being able to travel because I choose to do so, and not because the only choice I have is between death and taking my chances somewhere new.

*Not her real name

reed on pink background

O Gentle Savior

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen one in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him,

and he will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or cry out,

or raise his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break,

and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

Isaiah 42:1-3

reed on pink backgroundThe pastor read these words from Isaiah: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench…,” and suddenly I was listening. Read more

Called to Tell the Truth

Spotlight-1

From ‘Spotlight’

While there is a trend among colleges and universities these days to downsize journalism programs, for many of us journalism is “trending.”

For instance, the most downloaded podcast of all time, Serial, has a former newspaper reporter as its host and a small staff of researchers with backgrounds in journalism. The podcast’s tagline is simple: one story told week by week. In the first season, host Sarah Koenig investigated the story of a man named Adnan Syed, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his girlfriend 16 years earlier.  In the recently completed second season, Serial dug into the story of Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked away from his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years. These were heavy stories that took hours to tell. Koenig interviews experts about cell phone towers and maps of rural Afghanistan and other topics that seem boring. In the hands of seasoned journalists, those facts became fascinating.

While walking the dog earlier this week, I paused in the middle of the road to listen more carefully to the last episode of the second season. Koenig talked about blame and guilt. Forgiveness. Complexity of the human mind. She admitted, as she did in season one, that her questions still outnumbered her answers. What I heard was not a journalist–but a theologian. Read more

black and white image of a winter night - snowy road, tree and house

While It Was Still Dark

black and white image of a winter night - snowy road, tree and houseEarly in the morning, on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.

My father died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago. He was relatively young, only 58. The night before he died, I kept watch with him. His body started shutting down. I had sat at the bedside of enough dying people to know that when people die after a long illness, their feet and lower legs seem like they’re dying first. His feet turned purple and cold. It would not be long. I sat with my dad in the dark of the night. The rest of the house was quiet. So quiet. I could hear every gasp, every rattle.

It was the middle of January, and a blizzard raged outside. My husband drove through the night to be with me, but the snow piled up along the shore of Lake Michigan, delaying his arrival. Pain wracked my dad’s body. The hospice nurse couldn’t make it out in the storm, and I had already given all of the narcotics in the emergency comfort pack that she had left earlier that day. My dad was anxious, not about dying, but about what was happening to his body, and about the pain.

I could do so little to make him comfortable. Read more

Mater Misericordiae

The Church and Sexism: What We Can Do

I live on the Maine/New Hampshire border. The radio in my bedroom gets better reception from Maine’s NPR affiliate, the one in the kitchen tunes into the New Hampshire station. Which means, recently, that I wake up to Maine’s Governor LePage saying that one of the big concerns of the heroin epidemic is that (black) drug dealers are impregnating (white) women; as I pour my coffee, I hear about the NH state legislator who suggested that women who breastfeed in public should expect to have their breasts and nipples fondled.

Mater Misericordiae

Mater Misericordiae

Mornings have been rough around here.

Even without the racially-charged language being used in Maine (horrifying in itself, but a post for another day), these stories have been a constant reminder of the continuing objectification and sexualization of women in our culture. Each morning I am told anew that women are two-dimensional building blocks for the construction of men’s multi-dimensional identities.  Read more

Getting ready for Zumba

Finding Holy Ground

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 5Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ 6He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Exodus 3:1-5

 

Getting ready for ZumbaFinding New Ground

I’m not a dancer. Well, not really. I remember taking a ballet-tap-jazz class at our next-door neighbor’s house during elementary school. There was a studio in the basement and I loved the ways my tap shoes made noise as I stomped my feet. But my family moved a lot and it was not until seminary that I returned to the studio for a beginning ballet class. For ten weeks, I stretched and plied at the barre and practiced jumps across the floor. It was not exactly graceful, but I loved it. And now, ten years later, I find myself in a new studio, on a new floor, looking for a new place to stand.

I am in the midst of transitioning; Read more