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#GetYourWingsOn

In my last post, I talked about one of the ways that I take my anxieties and lean on God for help in getting through them; the past couple weeks have reminded me of another one.

Not because I was having a difficult time- far from it! Right after Thanksgiving this year, I got to start my month-long participation in my new favorite holiday tradition: MBMBaM Angels.

If you’re never heard of the podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me (MBMBaM to its fans) I highly recommend it. (Just keep in mind that it’s rated “explicit” for a reason!) The podcast is the work of Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy, three brothers from West Virginia who started this show years ago, and have since become professional podcasters, which I think is the modren equivalent of getting a job in radio.

A few years ago, the brothers were sitting around in December (they explained later on their facebook page) and reading the Empty Stockings list that their hometown newspaper puts out every year. The Empty Stockings are a list of 100 needs people in the community have, as relayed to the paper by the organizations that help them- everyone from Headstart, to the Ronald McDonald house, to churches in the area.

Justin McElroy posted to tell us this and to ask- no pressure- but if anyone was looking for a good deed to do that Christmas, would we perhaps consider filling a stocking?

At the time, I was sitting in the lighthouse where I worked. It was a quiet day and I was online a lot, so I got to watch and participate as the fans of this podcast put together a spreadsheet of all the needs the paper had printed and started calling the organizations to let them know that we were going to help.

I got to call a woman at one of the organizations who, when I asked for the address, described their location as “right down by the river”. I started to explain that I was calling from Baltimore, that I had heard about what they were doing and I wanted to help.

We both started to cry. And when I looked up, snow had begun to fall outside.

It was so picturesque, I almost thought I was in a cheesy Hallmark movie.

Over the next four years, the effort grew. Now, we have a website, a network of volunteers to make phone calls, and we take donations so that we can buy the big things people need, like beds and appliances.

Last year, the list was bigger than ever. There were still 100 needs, but we knew the organizations well enough for them to be honest with us. They needed 23 beds- plus mattresses, bedding, and pillows. I’m sure if we had offered, they would have found room for twice that. There were families that needed appliances. There was a boy who needed a lifejacket so that he could do swim therapy with his mom, even though he was getting too big for her to hold him safely in the water.

For a few years, we had given the organizations everything they asked for. But this year was so much bigger- I read the list, and counted the donations, and worried. I couldn’t imagine having to call the organizations to tell them that we couldn’t help, but I had no idea where we were going to get the means.

In a sermon a couple weeks ago, our priest suggested that the opposite of anxiety is not calm, but prayer. I was glad to hear this- I’ve never been able to “hand my problems to God” and stop feeling the weight of them. What I can do, and have known to do for a long time now, is to pray and at least feel the burden shared. Last December, I prayed hard about those beds, and appliances, and the life jacket, and all the other things people needed.

Then one day, while I was in the car, a song came on: it was “Shut Up and Dance” and as I sang along, belting it out to my steering wheel, I started to really hear the words.

“Don’t you dare look back
Just keep your eyes on me
I said you’re holding back
She said “shut up and dance with me!”

It was the conversation God and I were having- had been having, in fact, for a week or more. God was saying, “Don’t sit around wondering where it’s all going to come from. You do the work and focus ahead on the work I am doing through you, and you through Me.”

Even though I was worrying about whether God was working fast enough, the message was clear. All I had to do was shut up and dance, and God would work through me. My worrying was getting in the way of doing the work that needed to be done in order to fulfill God’s will which, in this case, I perceive to be that we help people. Not everyone in the world. Not everyone all at once. But I believe that God’s will, in this instance, was that we do all we could to help whoever we could. And that was very possible.

 

So I shut up. I danced- my fingers across the keyboard and my body down the aisles of department stores. And God, through so many kindhearted strangers around the world, provided. Most of the donations we received were very small, and a lot of them included notes that said something like, “It’s not much, but I hope it helps.” I spent a lot of time thinking about the story of the widow who gave everything she had for those poorer than herself.

 

At the end, I felt the way the disciples must have felt, holding baskets of loaves and fishes, wondering how so much came from so little, and wanting to know how they had managed to have so much left over.

 

We bought the beds, the mattresses, the pillows, and went shopping for bedding according to the tastes of each child or family on our list. We called Mark, for a few years our connection for home appliances, and put in our orders. We sent boxes and made the last phone calls, and finally we all took naps.

 

And when it was all over, and everything was sent, I wrote one final check to cover the cost of new hearing aids for three more people, the last of my loaves and fishes.

 

This year, I keep reminding myself that all I have to do is shut up and dance. If I do my part, God will do Hers. Once again, we will find ourselves in January with a basket of loaves and fishes, looking around for more hungry people to feed.

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Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel

Are you tired? I’m tired. Today at work, we had the news playing on mute in the background, so I was treated to eight hours of people- mostly men- debating a woman’s sexual assault. My facebook is variations on the same theme. Last week, I sat through a lunch where two of my male co-workers offered their hot takes on the event.

I feel like I could sleep for a week.

And I wish I had something magical to say to you to help you feel better. Some of you are survivors of rape or trauma; probably all of us can recall a time when our body was handled without our consent. I certainly can, and more times that I was harassed verbally, and any number of times that I’ve put myself in between other women and the men who were harassing them.

And if I had to guess, the fact that I hear and see and believe you doesn’t drown out the other voice you’re hearing today. You know the ones.

I’m Sister Mark and you’re reading a Christian blog, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I am trying to cope by looking for my faith. Sometimes it’s really hard to find- I won’t lie to you about that.

When it came time for prayers tonight, I sang “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel”. Yeah, the Christmas song.  This is a nice version- you could listen along while you read. I hope it helps. It’s what I need today. Not Christmas the holiday, exactly, but Christmas the event. I need Jesus so badly today, because men have been refusing to believe women since long before Jesus’ women disciples mistook the Lord for the gardener and went to tell the men the Good News. But God knew their worth and trusted them, and so He came to the women first.

And I am clinging, so tightly, to the fact that He sees me, too. And he sees my friends and my cousins and my colleagues and He knows our worth and He knows what we’ve been through. Belief? It’s not a matter of believing. He was with you then and He is with you now. Then why did it happen? I have no idea. I’m not a theologian and I know I’m not God. I don’t know why any of it happens. But I hold tighter than anything to the knowledge that He is here and He will not leave us. Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5)

So I sat down and sang, begging God to come. Do I want him to show up, literally, right here on Earth, tonight? To just be with me? I don’t know. But I know that the hope of Him and the promises He made to us gets me through when I don’t know what else to do. It doesn’t fix my problems. It doesn’t stop me from being sad right now. But it reminds me that in the end, God came to us. And then Christ died, and Christ is risen, and Christ will come again… and His kingdom will have no end.

This world is a letdown. God made it beautiful and full of wonders, and often it’s nothing more than a huge letdown. So I pray for Him to come and save us and I cling to the knowledge that, someday, somehow, He will.

 

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Genesis 26-50: Sibling Rivalry

The second half of the book of Genesis is largely concerned with families. We have family trees laid out over whole chapters, and the stories trace the events in the lives of these people from long ago. And honestly? They sound like incredibly dramatic people.

I know a lot of folks have a hard time getting around the fancy Biblical language, particularly if you have one of the more flowery (or old) translations, but if you can get down to what’s really going on, it’s basically a soap opera.

I mean, Jacob sells his birthright to his brother in exchange for dinner?  My brother and I spent our teenage years creating elaborate bargains as we both tried to get out of mowing the yard, so on one level I get making goofy trades with your siblings. On another level, we were just arguing about yardwork, not our entire futures! (And last weekend, we were laughing about the lengths we both went to, which seem really funny now that we have our own homes.)

Then, later in the chapter, Joseph’s brothers literally sell him into slavery. Most of this story winds up being about how Joseph copes, how he interprets dreams and becomes a valuable member of the household where he’s a captive. But it starts as the story of some guys who are really horrible to their little brother, and I think this is one of those stories that only seems okay if you don’t think about it too hard. If you do stop and consider it- you could definitely see this on some daytime TV.

And I’m gonna be honest here- I sympathize with the brothers a little bit. Not about the slavery thing, that’s obviously unconscionable. But teenage Joseph does not come across as a real likeable guy. I mean, Dad likes him best, so there’s clearly some jealousy there. And I do think that’s normal. I’d be really sad if I thought my parents liked my brother better than me.

Plus, Joseph has to go telling them about that dream that (he says) prophesies them bowing down to him. Had they not invented humility yet? It’s kind of a jerk move to lord it over your older brothers that you’re the favorite son, plus God has given you these cool gifts, and someday you’ll be nice enough to let your brothers serve you! I would also not be too pleased.

I often find myself saying that people have always been people, and they probably always will be. Genesis is a large part of my proof for that. There will always be siblings who argue. There will always be people who treat each other poorly. But there will be people like Jacob, who works patiently for years so that he can marry the woman he loves. And there will be people like Joseph, who start out sort of painful and grow up and become better people- and like the brothers, who probably learned a lot about humility and forgiveness.

And just like people don’t change, God’s presence doesn’t change either. He is with Joseph, interpreting dreams and, I assume, providing the reason and will to live. He is with Jacob and Rachel on their wedding day. Even when the stories are about the families, God is always present, blessing and sustaining. And even when it’s all about us, God is there.

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Genesis 1-25: In The Beginning

Hi everyone! Quick disclaimer before we start. The only person I speak for is me. Nothing I say is the official opinion of Grace and Feminism, Anamchara Fellowship, or any church in particular. I know plenty of people have different interpretations of Scripture than I do, and that’s great- all are welcome here! Now…

Genesis 1-25 picture
Credit: NewAtlas.com

Let’s begin in the beginning. It’s one of my favorite parts of the Bible, these opening verses. I love the ebb and flow of the days and nights and the poetry in the repetition of the words. “…And there was morning, and there was evening…” those first days, and every day since.

The words ground me in time; they make me feel the passing of the days and the seasons. The church year itself has some of the same effect on me, with Pentecost feeling like the end of school before summer break and Advent giving me the feeling of coming back home and settling into the year again. As we recount our Creation story, I feel the wonder of our world, brand new and opening up to life for the first time. I feel the amazement at what God has created for us. Never mind that I don’t take the story literally- the truth in it is that “God created”, now how many calendar years it took to do it.

I only read the first half of Genesis for this week. It’s a 50-chapter book, so I’m doing us all a favor and splitting it into two weeks.

I’m glad I did, too. There’s so much ground to cover- literally generations of people and accounts of some pretty wild events. I stopped at the end of chapter 25, right after Esau sells his birthright to Jacob. This comes on the heels of a lengthy list of begats which, if you follow it straight through, probably gives you a nice, broad family tree (I did not get out paper and write one up, but I bet you can find them online).

I have a hard time picturing these stories happening; part of that is because I don’t believe in them literally. For example, archaeology tells us there was some massive flooding several millennia ago, so the story of Noah and the ark may be the survivors’ explanation for why they (or their ancestors) were spared. But I don’t think some guy built a boat and gathered up the animals- except for the unicorns, according to that song- and floated with them for six weeks.

The other part of it, though, is that it’s just so far removed from my own time and place that, even when I try to picture the events, I just don’t know what it is I’m supposed to see. I could research this and learn more about it, of course. We do know some things about how people lived in that place, about the time Genesis was written down and in the preceding centuries.

But as often, what I find myself doing is filling it in. Take the story of Adam and Eve, for example. They’re naked in a garden, so that’s enough information for a mental image, if you’re comfortable having one. But because I’ve read the book Good Omens so many times, I always picture the serpent wearing sunglasses and snakeskin shoes (or at least presumably they were shoes, as the narrator says). And I imagine the angel with the flaming sword giving it to Eve and having to explain himself to God.

None of that is in the Bible! But Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (GNU) wrote such an engaging account of it that, even though I know the Bible story, it’s their account that I picture. And if you think that’s bad, wait until we hit the Gospels and I tell you about a book called Lamb…

But I think what we learn from Genesis doesn’t have to be literal stories. When I read Genesis and repeat the stories that have been told for millennia, I find beauty in the tradition of them. I love thinking about how I’m just one more person in a world’s worth of people to hear these stories and learn from them. I’ve got thousands of years worth of people who wondered how the giraffes like the ark, or how long it took Isaac to figure out that he was the sacrifice- and what the conversation in their home was like afterwards! Just like the opening verses of the chapter, the stories of Genesis help me find my place in the history of my faith.

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It’s About Time!

Hi everyone! I’ve got a project I want to start with you all. See, last week in church, the kids’ choir performed their spring musical. It was so great! It was called The Old Testament Fast Forward, and promised to give us the entire Old Testament in 10 minutes or less.

Well… they came close. The “Producer” came onstage about ten minutes in to let the audience know that we should scratch out “ten” and write in “twenty”. When she came out again to let us know that it was going to be more like half an hour, maybe longer, one of the other kids asked, “How much more do we have left?”

“About 900 years!”

And then they sang a song, to the tune of the William Tell Overture, wherein they named a lot of prophets really quickly.

And after that, one of the kids made a suggestion: If you felt like you were missing some details, maybe you could go home and read your Bible for ten minutes a day? Then it would be like reading the entire Hebrew Bible in ten minutes!

I’m not sure I buy the logic, exactly, but I love the idea.

Here’s my big confession: I haven’t read the entire Bible. Large chunks, sure, but not every word. And I think it’s more than time that I changed that. So my project is this, and here’s your formal invite to participate: I’m going to read one book of the Bible every week. If it’s a long book, or a rough week, I might get halfway through. I’ll be giving myself whatever grace I need. And once I’ve read, I’ll blog about it.

I’d love for you (yeah, you!) to read some or all of it with me and I’d love to know what you think in the comments here or on our facebook page.

Here’s the caveat: I’m not a theologian. I’ve never taken any classes, I don’t know a lot about translation, and I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time studying other texts for context. (I may use the study Bible my priest gave me, however, because I think footnotes are just the right amount of additional information for me right now.) So the responses are going to be my thoughts, my gut feelings, and my opinions.

I don’t speak for the Grace and Feminism team as a whole (none of us does) and I don’t speak for the Episcopal Church or Anamchara Fellowship, either. The only person I speak for is myself, and I want to invite you to speak for yourself, either in the comments on this post or on our facebook page. Talking and sharing our own traditions, interpretations, and ideas are all great ways to put real thought into the Bible and our faith!

The Bible isn’t like other books; I don’t expect the novels I read to be divinely inspired and I don’t expect to live the rest of my life according to the things I learn from them. It’s great when God speaks to me though something I read, or when an author says they felt that the Spirit inspired their writing, and I do get a lot of really solid life lessons from books, but… the Bible is so much more than that. That said, because I can’t give you deep theology for everything I read, sometimes I’m going to respond on a basic, personal level. There might be weeks that we talk about history, or culture or language, but there will also be weeks where I just write about whether I liked the stories or not.

If you’re up for responding, I invite you to do the same. It’s okay not to have deep theological conversations about every passage. We’ve got a whole lifetime to read and re-read and we’ve got to start somewhere! So I invite you to check back every Sunday for a post from me and I can’t wait to hear what you all have to say!

Happy reading!

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“Is It Like In ‘Sister Act’?”

Hi everyone! Sister Mark here. I’m Grace and Feminism’s resident Religious Sister. I’ve been a Sister since taking my vows in January, 2017. My dispersed order, Anamchara Fellowship, was formed in 2000 in the traditional Celtic style. Back when there were only three digits in the year, the Christian church in the British Isles had a different style of Religious Life than most orders you see today. Their monastic communities sometimes included men and women in the same order, women in leadership, married members, and a unique style of spiritual formation.  “Anamchara” means “Soul Friend”, and exemplifies the way that Brothers and Sisters of Anamchara Fellowship are meant to live within the world, as Anamchara to everyone we meet.

I’ll post more (a lot more!) about Religious Life in the Episcopal church, but I want to start with a question a lot of people have asked me over the last couple of years as I began the spiritual formation process and prepared to take my vows. In fact, people still ask me all the time- most recently, I was cornered by a middle school kid at our church youth retreat. H wanted to know: “What’s it like being a nun? Do you like it?”

Taking vows
Here I am taking my vows. The filter hides the terrified look on my face.

 

Whether I like being a nun is a fairly straightforward question- I do like it! It’s fulfilling and peaceful to do God’s will and I get a lot of satisfaction and beauty in feeling that I’m exactly where I’m called to be. And I like my community of Brothers, Sisters, and Companions. My life is better for having them in it- there’s even a weekly DnD game a bunch of us play!

I think this would be different if I had somehow ended up in Religious life against my will, or against God’s call in my life. I think that if that were true, I would find the responsibility oppressive, the community stifling, and that sense of peace and satisfaction missing. I once heard, or possibly read, the observation that your calling is “where your great joy meets the world’s deep need”. I find great joy in living as a Sister, and it is the place God is calling me to fill a need.

I don’t always know where that need is, and sometimes I think that this might be the fulfillment of my call, simply to be present when and where I find myself. Some people find the fulfillment of their own calling in a job or ministry. I think maybe mine is to be available at all the odd times, when there is nobody else. To stand in the middle of difficult questions and the moral decisions nobody else wants to make.

And that’s terrifying. I am so little in control of that- I have been approached in the grocery store, in museums, and in churches. I have heard stories of health disasters, miracles, questions, faith, and doubt. I have no formal training in ministry or spiritual direction or therapy- I just say a prayer and hope God will give me words. I think about Moses a lot.

As scary as it is, I love that this happens. It’s so special to be able to be there for someone, to know that their step is a little lighter and their heart a little brighter because you cross their path.

Of course, I haven’t answered this question in it’s most basic form, which is: what do I do all day? I don’t wander around in my habit waiting for someone to need God, and because of the way my community functions, I do need to hold down a job.

So, that’s a lot of what I do. I have a secular job that I enjoy very much! A lot of the folks in my community work in a helping profession or a church- we have a lot of priests. My own job is very secular, but I don’t see that as separate from living a life in which I bring God wherever I go and remain available for whoever needs Him.

To give you a sketch of what my life is like day-to-day, I got up a little after six this morning and made faces about having to get out of bed. Then I showered, dressed for work (in a nice pant-suit type thing; I don’t wear my habit to the office) and drove the half hour or so that it takes me to get there. I usually sing loudly into my steering wheel while I drive.

Once I was settled at my desk, I checked my work email and then my personal email. Morning Prayer in my community comes daily by email. One of the Brothers writes it up every morning, so each day we say something a little different. We work our way through a couple of prayer cycles so Morning Prayer includes, each day, different members of the community and other orders.

Given the time that Morning Prayer comes out, I usually pray it sitting at my desk. It takes a relatively short time and then I get to work. There’s a break mid-day for lunch and some time here and there to chat with my co-workers. My office likes to talk about hockey and movies, and argue about food- usually cake vs pie or triscuits vs wheat thins. I’m hungry at work a lot!

When my workday is over, I head home or meet with friends. One night a week is DnD night, another is a standing dinner date with my best friends. We do all the normal stuff- watch movies, go out to dinner, and talk for hours. Sometimes I go hang out with my Mom and Dad and our cats, who all live nearby. Sometimes I have chores to do- laundry and dishes, the same as anybody else.

At some point in the evening, I say Evening Prayer and depending on which friends I’m with, sometimes someone will join me. I really enjoy having company while I pray- but even when I don’t, I know that my Brothers and Sisters around the world are praying with me.

After we’ve hung out for a while, or I’ve watched a movie or done my chores or read a book, it’s time for lights out. I finish the dishes and brush my teeth and say Compline before I turn off the light and listen to podcasts until I fall asleep.

This often raises the question (and it’s not a bad one) how is this different from anybody else’s life? Lots of people pray a lot and go to work and hang out with friends. Why bother to be a nun if you’re not going to move into a monastery and work for the church?

It’s a really good question and honestly, one that can be really hard to answer. In style, my life isn’t very different from what it was before. I do a lot of the same things. It’s the substance that is changing and, with God’s help, will continue to change. Others’ mileage will vary, but for me, the difference is in my approach to life, the all-in, ride-or-die work to focus on God and being God’s hands and feet in the world. The difference, then, might be the intensity and constancy of the commitment.

That means that I work every day to be more patient, more kind, to embody God’s love more deeply. Because I am visibly religious, I have taken on a burden that I think many people do not feel to represent Christ in everything I do, without exception. This is really hard and I am nowhere near as good at it as I would like to be, but it is that growth to be more and more like Christ that is the substantial change you should be able to see in me.

So, what’s it like being a nun? In some ways, that’s a question God answers for me every day in unique ways. What can I do today to be a good nun? How can I serve You? And He always has an answer, whether it’s immediately clear or not. As for whether I’m happy in this life, here’s what I’ve learned: following God’s will is the outcome that will make you the happiest, even when it’s difficult or frightening or a lot of work. I would recommend it to anyone.