Reality Not Satan

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’~Mark 8:31-38 NRSV

Many times in Christian tradition we hear Jesus referred to as the “Great Physician”. In this week’s lectionary I think we see Jesus the Great Physician, in rare and honest form. Jesus is giving his disciples a very clear prognosis. Peter, like so many of us, responds with denial –the first stage of grieving. Peter is so like us.

I remember sometime in late 2002, I sat in a orthopedist’s office. He spoke to me about the MRI of my spine. He used words I did not, yet, know.  What I most remember is “by age 40 you’ll be using a wheelchair or in need of spinal surgery.” NOOOOO! My brain, like Peter’s could not process it. I could not conceive of what he said. My mind shot out firecrackers of um so I worked my way through years of painful, confidence shattering physical and speech therapy to cope with Cerebral palsy, and now you are telling me that I am going to need to use a wheelchair anyways? Then what has been the point of all the work everyone told me was necessary and good? What then has been the point of my life if not to exceed expectations? If I can no longer do that who am I?  His words could not possibly fit into what I knew of life.

Peter rebuked Jesus not out of stupidity, although the writer of Mark sometimes portrays the disciples that way. Peter’s reaction to the news that Jesus would die was not really inspired by Satan, but by the very human experience of not being able to connect new information to what was expected based on a very real and human understanding of the world. Peter could no more conceive of the Messiah dying on a cross, then some people can conceive of a woman who used to have a speech impediment preaching. Peter is not very different from the families I meet who can not believe that their loved one on hospice is actually dying.

We live in a society that teaches us that physical change and decline is unacceptable, that it needs to stay hidden or be “put away” somewhere. But that is not how real life is. We are born, we age, we decline, and we die. Jesus is stating a very matter-of-fact truth about human life. Still like Peter we resist it. We resist change. We don’t want to believe that the real plan might be different from our plan. The influence of the Greek cynics is strong, we hear it from the men who die along side Jesus “Physician, heal thy self” / “Save yourself if you can”. That is what Peter expects–triumph against the world and the expectations of history.

Jesus, however, invites us forward into the very history we resist. Jesus calls us to the new. When my chronic pain started in 2002, I hated it. I wanted to go back the time when life itself was not a struggle. I took me a while to learn that was not going to be an option. Life became the unexpected. Somewhere somehow I realized that the pain might change my life but would not end it. I lost the competitive swimming, lost some ability to do the physically taxing book art that I loved, and lost some of the activeness I was known for. It seemed like I lost me. In time I realized that was all wrong. My acquired disabilities invited me out of the shadows. I could not hide my chronic pain as I had learned to compensate for and hide my cerebral palsy. A nun who had spent most of her career working with people with developmental disabilities, and was my supervisor, thought it was great fun to fold her arms over her chest and point out to me my very CP personality traits. Then there were the old ladies who sat behind me at church, who saw how much it hurt for me to stand or hold the hymnal in worship. They forced me to try a cane. I did not like any of it, but recognizing my real needs helped. It was when I could accept my acquired disabilities that I stopped denying my native disabilities. I learned to accept myself. It has made all the difference. To come out as who I am as a disabled woman has also allowed me to become an advocate, to make the world a more welcoming, accepting, inclusive world. That is not the work of Satan, it’s the work of accepting reality and following Jesus wherever he has us go.

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Collared

It is the first week of Lent and I may have already failed one of the major challenges of the Lenten journey. I am not one to give things up for Lent, and I have been notoriously bad at picking up a new spiritual practice to carry for the Lenten season. I think a lot of people are like me in this regard, or perhaps I am like most people. Or perhaps since Valentines Day fell on the second day of Lent this year, I could not create reality out of the notion of giving something I liked up and chocolate being present at the same time. See, this Lenten stuff all gets very complicated.

I did actually take something up for Lent this year, more specifically for Ash Wednesday. As a chaplain I have found that Ash Wednesday is probably the one holiday that I am called upon to function as clergy in ways that many parish pastors do. In fact, it is the only Christian holiday that calls for me to prepare and led a worship service in the context of my ministry setting (memorial services are different.) So this year I decided to go for it! Inspired by Womenspirit’s sale, I ordered a clergy collar shirt! I was not at all sure it would arrive in time for Ash Wednesday but it did,  so I took it as a sign that I should wear it to work.

The shirt is a lovely royal blue. The collar was tight and uncomfortable but we became friends by the end of the day. I have to be honest. The context in which I minister is one where my authority as a woman clergy person is regularly challenged and occasionally outright denied. This is not specific to my context, its specific to mainstream American Christianity, I know this. Several of my colleagues had encouraged me to wear a collar to work, Ash Wednesday and the need to lead a service, seemed the perfect day, so I did it.

This is what I learned from a day in the collar. The collar has power. There is no doubt about it. It  defines one’s role–as I found I did not have to introduce myself as the chaplain because people assumed. A collar defines one role and authority externally but internally as well. I felt more confident in my role, and there was I felt flow of respect towards me that I don’t always experience. It was as if the sight of me in my collar demanded a recognition not often granted.

It felt great! And that is where I failed, or so I thought. Yes it did feel great to experience authority and respect in ways I do not experience it when I am not wearing a clergy collar. But this was not exactly the rush of new found authority and sovereignty, as in the temptation Jesus faces in the wilderness. It was not that because it was not lasting. It was not that because it was not ego-infused. The clerical collar will come off and former patterns of relationship will no longer be interrupted by its presence. I thought I had failed a Lenten insight because I had experienced for the first time the authority people grant to those in the collar, and I thought it was good. I did not fail, because I realize that experiencing the power of  this authority was not about me. The only authority I have is the authority entrusted to me by God to care for God’s people. It is the authority of the yoke, the predecessor to the collar. The authority granted to those who answer the needs of others, even when that collared individual may desire to choose another way, like sleep. The collar is powerful, but it is not the power of authority, only the power of authoritative servitude and reluctant prophethood that flows from answering God’s demand to love others.

The Ordination Paradox

Amanda Kersey just got ordained and is singing I'll Fly Away

“How does it feel, Rev?” “What’s it like?” “Are you used to it yet?” These are just a few of the questions I have been asked within the last couple of weeks after my ordination. To be honest I feel a mixture of emotions and think I will for some time. After the first week at the surface I felt relief, excitement, happiness, contentment, confidence and to be honest a little sadness. However, after my second week there was new deeper emotion and I couldn’t name it. It was bothering me so badly I actually had to stop blogging to figure it out. To put it simply, I feel that a wrong has been righted. And with that there is new found stillness in my mind, soul and body. A stillness that in some way feels distantly familiar.

Listening to all of the human interest stories from the Olympics helped me articulate what was going on for me. Hearing some of the inspiring stories and sacrifices the athletes made over the years—something I can halfway understand as a former USS and collegiate swimmer. However, for me the swimming analogy is a little deeper. I’m still not really sure what happened to me as a swimmer and to be honest I’m not sure it was just one thing. It’s more like it was a perfect storm. It’s not something I totally regret, because I truly and deeply feel like I am exactly where I need to be in my life and the bad and the good attributed to me being where I am. I do, however, feel that what happened to me as a swimmer had a good chance of repeating itself in my professional career and calling. I felt that old urge to settle, buckle under, back off because my drive upset others (having moms of my teammates yell at me in the locker rooms) and do “just enough.” I gave in for a while allowing myself to be walked over, overworked and underappreciated in my marriage and in the church. As a kid I was at the mercy of others, but as an adult it was all me and this time enough was enough. I thought about the words of Christ that we are to forgive seventy times seven. I also recalled the biblical examples of where people parted ways without cross feelings, but with an understanding that it just wasn’t working. For me I worked hard to forgive not only others, but myself for allowing myself to be used in those ways. I had to make the decision to walk away from my spiritual tradition in 2008 in order to do what I know I am supposed to do now and set myself up for the future. It was an excruciating and yet beautiful process, one I have both hated and loved.

I ignored the pulling in my life towards ordination for years for many different reasons. I knew my life would have to drastically change—I knew it would expedite the end of a significant relationship, bring some dissension within my family and force me to break ties with a religious community that once loved and nurtured me and I it. However, the scariest part of ordination was the internal dialogue I had to engage with myself and God as I had to consider what it meant to follow a God that I felt was calling me out of and against everything I had been taught and believed for so long. When God lives in a box and Gods actions and motivations can be surmised in a nice tightly wrapped systematic theology it’s easy to get comfortable and dare I say arrogant. This process broke me in new ways as I had to come to the realization my two degrees in religion speak more to the fact that I enjoy academia than my understanding of God. God has once again shown me that the truth of the words of Isaiah, “God’s ways are not my ways and God’s thoughts are not my thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8). I was once again reminded that when God calls us out into new places there are critics on all our sides, encouraging us to doubt and question and even at times suggesting our faith is immature and misguided. However, I have once again been reminded to claim the truth that the voices of the many do not outweigh the whisper of the One. I’m not saying I didn’t listen to others. In fact I believe others are a way in which God speaks to and through us. However, it felt too reminiscent and I had given in before, but not this time.

July 22, 2012 I was ordained in the UCC after having hands laid upon me both literally and figuratively affirming the call of God on my life and having a church promise to support me. This public affirmation for me once again brought a deep sense of healing making visible something I had only been able to imagine. I have known the call on my life since I was 17, but to have it confirmed in front of witnesses transforms the internal into the external causing something mystical and supernatural to happen. The wrong had been righted. After years of being denied job applications, having to have checks from the church written to my ex-husband instead of me for the work I had done and even having churches offer to pay for his seminary and not mine all that injustice has been righted. Now, I am not one of those who believe that the past is somehow magically erased, but I do believe it can be shelved. I don’t want to forget, because it is what drives me to look for others who have had similar experiences and creates in me a new found sensitivity.

There is no anger or resentment (anymore). I am truly grateful for a religious upbringing that introduced me to God, taught me so much about spiritual discipline and gave me a love for scripture. I’m forever thankful for the roots, but sometimes plants are uprooted and replanted in order to fully grow. The sadness of ordination has been that there has been very little acknowledgement from people in my past—the tradition which I left. I’m sure it’s because some think I have lost my mind or at least temporarily gone insane. Perhaps some think maybe if it’s not acknowledged it does not exist. However, the support I have received has been amazing and for right now that is enough. It’s already opened up some interesting opportunities to meet others. All in all I’m pretty excited about the future, but also feeling grounded in the present.

Ordination on YouTube

Here is the final playlist of videos from my ordination. There are five videos that will play straight through if you let it, or you can use the advance button to get to the next video.

  1. Thoughts before the ordination
  2. Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas’ sermon
  3. Special music: Lois Myers sings “Be Strong, Take Courage”
  4. Ordination liturgy including laying on of hands
  5. Unedited complete service

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

1 John 1:1-9 
John 21:19b-24

Here we are on the third day of Christmas. The gifts have been unwrapped. Families are departing from Christmas Day gatherings back to their respective homes. Some of us have returned to work. The radios have stopped playing Christmas tunes. Yet, for Christians, the celebration of the presence of the Eternal Word has just begun.

As the ladders go up to pull down the sparkling lights, the first epistle of John reminds us that the light of Christ that we celebrate at His birth remains. “In him there is no darkness at all,” the first epistle of John reminds us. Yet somehow we still scurry to pull down the lights and get back to our day-to-day existence beyond the day of Christmas.

What is it about the light of Christ that has us packing away our Christmas gear so early into the 12 days of Christmas leading to the Epiphany? The day of Christmas can be filled with such seeming innocence—a celebration of the birth of a little boy who brings the hope of salvation to the world.

Yet how quickly do we realize that the light of the Son of God threatens to expose us? When we find ourselves in the light of God, there is nothing left to hide. We are vulnerable, exposed, and naked before God. And in that vulnerability, we are expected to trust a baby that fully depends upon other human beings. Others must nurture him so he might survive. He must depend on others that he might survive one day save us.

I love how this Gospel passage, the close to the testament of the life of Jesus according to John, ends. Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.”

Peter knows that Jesus is calling him to an uncomfortable place, a place where he can no longer conform, a next stage in his life where he must take responsibility for his personal convictions and beliefs. The spotlight is on Peter.

Peter, rather than agreeing to follow Jesus, asks of his nearby friend, “What about this other guy? What is he supposed to do?”

The final words of Jesus are, in essence, “What’s it to you? Follow me!”

The light of Christ exposes us, makes it clear that God takes us personally, that we can no longer hide from the responsibility of faith. And we have the promise that we won’t have to go it alone. If God incarnate had to rely upon other human beings for survival and growth, so must we.

Perhaps this year, you might leave up those sparkling lights a few days longer. Be reminded that Christmas is not just about the day of Jesus’ birth, but is a call to dwell in Him who is light and life.

Jesus’ light exposes, enlightens, and calls you. Where might Christ’s bright, shining, expository light lead your life during this Christmas season?

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Rev. Allison Rainey English serves as Associate Priest at St. Wilfrid of York Episcopal Church in Huntington Beach, California. Allison graduated from Claremont School of Theology with a Master of Divinity in 2008. Her passions for work in the church include liturgical development, pastoral care, youth ministry, and responsible social engagement/community building among the church.

Contemplation

mountain path, shady and greenPsalms 119:1-24
Psalms 12, 13, 14
Isaiah 2:1-11
Luke 20:19-26

Finding a path you believe God wants you to walk on can be a difficult endeavor, relying on countless factors. In our world of constant movement, it behooves us to take moments of stillness to consider both our journey and our destination. In the Scriptures for today, paths of righteousness and wickedness are described fitting the time in which they were written. Consider, what would make a path of righteousness or a path of wickedness for you in this time? Sometimes we can get swept up in our goals that we don’t realize the beauty of the passage or we try to force our way ahead like the teachers of the law in Luke, searching for a particular goal rather than allowing a more loving path to guide their way. Take time to imagine your path and meditate deeply on the many steps along the journey. What will they look like? How might you feel at each step? What if you get turned around, how might you learn from that experience and what will follow it? Consider the photo and take time to imagine what each small step on the way represents for you as well as what lies beyond the bend…

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Kelley Wheat-Rivers earned her masters degree in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Claremont School of Theology. She is now a Chaplain and Bereavement Coordinator at Liberty Hospice and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, both in Wilmington, NC.