Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Thursday, June 13, 2019

On Terrifying Headlines, or, Crying Myself to Sleep Over Climate Change

The Lord God took the human and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. ~Genesis 2:15

A little over a week ago, I started seeing an article popping up on FB, shared by numerous friends. It was the most dire headline about climate change I've ever seen:


I didn't read the article right away. I scanned it. The opening paragraphs seemed to support the headline. And there it was again, that old familiar sinking feeling.

This wasn't news to me.

In 2012 I was faced with the proposition of selling my parents' beautiful home at the Jersey shore, located along the inland waterway. I talked to my realtor frankly.

"How can I sell this in good conscience, seeing as I'm pretty sure it's likely to be underwater in 20 years?"

She replied, "All the buyers have access to the same newspapers you do."

I allowed that to be my ethical get-out-of-jail-free card, and sold my parents' house at market rate.

On the day of my closing, Superstorm Sandy made landfall, pretty much, right exactly on top of my parents' house.

I waited for the phone call from my realtor, telling me the buyer wanted out. The house had three feet of water in it. Sounds about right, I thought. Who in their right mind wants it now?

And I returned to an old fantasy of retiring there, and swimming in the bay in my dotage, and walking down to the beach for sunrise, and returning to watch the timbers decay around me.

A phone call came, but it was not the one I was expecting. The buyer wanted to send his contractor to have a look. Was that ok with me?

Sure! I said. I was hundreds of miles away, so I was grateful to at least have some sense of how bad the damage was.

The contractor went in on a Saturday. He called me from the house. The entire first floor had been flooded, of course, and the furnace, hot water heater, and central air unit were all destroyed.

He told me the buyer was still interested, but to keep the house viable, they had to start tearing out walls, gut the first floor bathroom, laundry room, and shower, and place fans all around, immediately, before mold took hold.

Would I be willing to let them do that, while they contemplated their revised offer?

As I hung up the phone, I remembered my realtor's words to me.

"They have access to the same newspapers you do."

And now, they'd had access to the violence and scope of the storm of the new era of accelerated climate change.

When it hit, Sandy was the second most expensive storm in US history, with damages eventually reckoned at about $70 billion.

Now, it is the fourth most expensive hurricane, having been surpassed by Harvey and Maria in 2017.

This is our reality. This is our future. Climate change is now.

But people with enough money are still going to buy homes on the water, because they can afford to.

Even after seeing that damage. Even after paying for it.

According to the new study out of the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration in Australia, climate change poses an existential threat to humanity if not addressed aggressively, right now. The authors take to task governments that refuse to recognize the national security risks as well as the potential loss of human life involved. They also scold scientists who are, in their view, erring on the side of "least drama."

If ever there was a moment for drama in the service of a call to action, this is probably it.

The second night after I read the paper I couldn't shake a feeling of dread as I got ready to go to sleep. I settled in and turned out the lights. I started to think of my children. I calculated how old they will be in 2050. I wondered whether either of them would have children. (I have always hoped they would. Now I am not so sure.)

I began to cry. This is not the future I want for my children, or anyone's children. I don't want either the people I love or people I've never met to face the nightmare scenario of the places they love underwater, the lives they create wiped away, and the complete disappearance of water and air clean enough to sustain life.

Something in me has shifted. I cannot shake this, cannot put it away in a safe place, cannot pretend everything's going to be ok. I know that action is the only possible response.

Scripture tells me that the earth-- and everything else-- is the creation of an infinitely inventive God, who commissions humans to care for it. Though the classic translation of Genesis 2:15 is that the human was placed in the garden to "till it and keep it," the Hebrew beneath the English translation is far stronger. The word translated "till" has the same root as "servant." The human is being told to serve the earth. And that word translated "keep" is just as often translated "guard" or "protect."

For people in the Jewish and Christian traditions, our mandate is to serve and protect the earth. Of course, indigenous peoples have been telling us this ever since Europeans got off their ships and looked around to see what they could mine, cut, and otherwise seize from the land.

But I digress.

I do most of the things people are supposed to do to try to ease their carbon footprint. I recycle. I carry re-usable tote bags to the grocery store. I drive a hybrid car.

I still fly, though, usually once or twice each year. I eat meat, the production of which is a huge source of carbon emissions. What I recycle includes a lot of plastics. And even though it's a hybrid, I still drive, every single day.

Scientists are telling us that individuals, on our own, cannot effect change on a large enough scale. What we do in our homes at at our jobs will not be enough. Governments have to take action. Policies have to change. In 2016, the earth was the warmest it had been in 120,000 years. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere-- the thing that causes climate warming-- is the highest it's been in human history, and higher than it's been for millions of years.

Recycling is good. I won't be giving up my hybrid any time soon. And I'm not giving up on the notion that we can, somehow, turn this ship around.

The most important thing I can do to combat climate change -- that any of us can do-- is to vote.

I'm going to find the candidates at every level-- local, state, federal--who are the most committed to serving and protecting the earth, and I'm going to give them my complete support.

I'm going to find the ones who are committed to putting limits on carbon emissions and fighting back against those who are more interested in lining their pockets than in saving the planet.

I'm going to go to work for them, go door to door for them, show up at their campaign rallies, donate to them, and get people to the polls for them.

And I'm going to vote. I suggest you do, too. Vote, vote, vote.

That's the only thing that can save us now.

* You can find the article by putting the title above into a search engine,

Monday, June 3, 2019

Pride in the Face of Death

Yesterday a wonderful local friend posted something on Facebook that made my blood freeze in my veins--a screenshot of the following statement from a man in Watertown, NY:

Watertown is having
celebration. For the
love of God please
let someone go on a 
mass shooting.

The man's name is unusual enough that he was easy to find through the FB search engine. I spent about 10 minutes scrolling down his page, by which time, many LGBTQIA+ folks were already on the scene, trying, alternately, to reason with him, to infuriate him (by posting lots of rainbows and gifs of same gender people kissing one another), and just generally saying, You are a messed up human.

He responded defiantly, invoking Jesus (who, he believes, will show his LGBTQ appreciation through a gay-killing inferno on Judgement Day), and posting meme after meme about how he was waiting for the police to come to his door as a result of the original post (which, to be clear, had been removed by this time-- though, as I said, plenty of folks seem to have taken screenshots of it). 

And, yeah, more information having come out (heh) about the guy, it sounds like he's had a hard-knock life and responded with a lot of anger and at least some light arson. 

But, if I may, the attitude of this man-- that the world would be better if LGBTQ people were massacred-- is pretty much why Pride celebrations exist: in the face of threats of death, at some point, lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer folks, everyone in that alphabet soup that keeps expanding as people tell their truth... in the face of death threats, we say: but we, too, are entitled to our lives.

So, we have Pride.

The threats aren't always literally about death (though, for some, that is increasingly the case-- most notably our trans sibs, who are murdered at the highest rate of all of us, trans women of color especially).

Sometimes it is the death of the soul that is threatened--when families reject us, and tell us we are no longer welcome.

When churches say, "You are not right-- you sin in a way that is worse than any and every other sin."

Sometimes the threat is directed at our livelihoods... as is the case right now, as the current administration strips these protections from us, one at a time, a relentless assault on our dignity and personhood. For a full and detailed account of all the actions taken against us, I recommend this Twitter thread from Charlotte Clymer. Seeing it all together is sobering, terrifying-- a reminder that our lives, at least for this administration, do not count, do not matter, and are simply something to use to gain points with people filled with hate.

In the end, there's not a lot of difference between the guy in Watertown and a religious leader who tells their congregation that being gay is the worst kind of sin.

So, we have Pride.

We raise flags with rainbows on them-- the rainbow, in the bible, a symbol of a covenant of love and faithfulness. And we wear rainbow t-shirts, and jewelry, and kerchiefs, and baseball caps, because there just aren't enough rainbows in this world.

We have parades in which we show our most vibrant, joy-filled selves to the world.

We have festivals. This year, our local Pride Palooza will feature (among other things such as food, trucks, craft vendors, a kids' area, and a drag show) a table where attendees can get "Mom-hugs." Because, if you're gay, or bi, or trans, or queer, it's not a given that your own mom wants to hug you any more.

And so, we have Pride. We have a place where the message is: You are loved. You are worthy. You are welcome. Come and have some cotton candy and a hug. Come and know you are at home here, at least.

And to those who wonder why we don't have Straight Pride, here's what I say:

When people want to kill you just because of who you are and who you love, I'll come to your Pride event.

Until then, please respect and at least try to understand ours.

Image from Saturday's Binghamton Flag-Raising, borrowed-- with gratitude!-- from Patti Loves Bing.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

That Anniversary Just Slipped By

That would be, the anniversary of my coming out to the congregation I serve as their minister.
May 13, 2009. Ten years and ten days ago.

For years I'd marked it.

It was the anniversary of the day I started breathing deeply again.

It was the day I stopped being afraid.

(Even though, my job was far from safe-- the denomination in which I serve had not yet repealed its anti-LGBTQ legalese, the infamous "Amendment B," put on the books, I think, the year I became a Presbyterian... back when I was married to my college sweetheart, a man). 

It was the day I started mentioning her name to people I'd come to love over the previous eighteen months.

("Her name is Sherry," I said, and they said things like, "We're so happy you have someone special in your life." And, "Now we feel even closer to you." And, "When can we meet her?")

I was one of the lucky ones. When I told my session (church board), they barely blinked. They looked at one another and said things like, "This doesn't change anything." And, "You're our pastor." There was no movement to toss me out, though one soul, when it came to a vote (the question of whether I should stay), indicated that I shouldn't receive a salary any longer.

I was incredibly lucky. Most of the people who had theological or scriptural questions about having a gay minister welcomed me into their homes, prayed with me, and told me they loved me.

I suffered more in the anticipation of the event, than I did in its aftermath.

I was, to put it succinctly, blessed. And protected. And cherished. And wanted.

That is not every lesbian minister's story. But it is my story.

And the years since, years of happily serving Jesus together here in our little corner of the church universal, have been remarkably peaceful.

So maybe it's not at all odd that, this year, I completely forgot about it.

Though, my daughter and I have been listening to the Indigo Girls all week, and fangirling over their wonderfulness by text and phone.

I suppose that's a pretty good way to celebrate.

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Wisdom of Rachel Held Evans

On Saturday I was in the midst of my beloved's and my annual jaunt to Tribeca Film Festival, in which we run around Manhattan, eat great food, see my son, and watch at least four movies in eight days. This year's trip also included a morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and a long ramble through Central Park.

It was pretty perfect. It always is.

But on Saturday afternoon, as I checked my phone between seeing a beautiful film called "Driveways" (about unlikely friendships) and a devastating film called "XY Chelsea" (about the trans heroine who exposed U.S. war crimes), I read something that was impossible.

I read that Rachel Held Evans had died.

Rachel was 37. She was what some have called an "exvangelical," someone who came to understand that some essential tenets of the church that gave birth to her faith in Jesus Christ were actually harmful, human-made vehicles keeping some in the position of power and others in oppression.

She left. She grieved. She found faith-in-community anew. She wrote about it, and in doing so, she became a fresh, intelligent, and compassionate voice for those who were learning a new way to follow Jesus.

My first encounter with Rachel's writing was "Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church." It's a memoir chronicling her faith journey through childhood and young adulthood, and her disillusionment with a church that seemed more concerned with law and exclusion and building maintenance than love and feeding Christ's sheep and healing the world. But it also reveals the core of what kept drawing her back: Jesus. Something precious she found in the scriptures. And, structured as the book is around both the two great sacraments (Baptism and Communion) and the additional traditional five markers of the life of faith (Confirmation, Reconciliation, Marriage, Orders/ Ordination, and the Sacrament of the Sick), her crisp and beautiful theological language revels in the power of a life formed by faith.

I wanted more. So I went back to an earlier book "A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How A Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master."  At the link, you'll find this description:

Strong-willed and independent, Rachel Held Evans couldn't sew a button on a blouse before she embarked on a radical life experiment--a year of biblical womanhood. Intrigued by the traditionalist resurgence that led many of her friends to abandon their careers to assume traditional gender roles in the home, Evans decides to try it for herself, vowing to take all of the Bible's instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.

Pursuing a different virtue each month, Evans learns the hard way that her quest for biblical womanhood requires more than a "gentle and quiet spirit" (1 Peter 3:4). It means growing out her hair, making her own clothes, covering her head, obeying her husband, rising before dawn, abstaining from gossip, remaining silent in church, and even camping out in the front yard during her period. 

Rachel was trying to prove a point, and man o man, did she ever. She confirmed what she'd suspected, that despite the claims of some that they prioritize scripture above all, evangelical notions of Christian womanhood are, in fact, choosy about which behaviors they require, and--surprise!-- they all involve keeping women in submissive and subservient roles.

Near the end of "Biblical Womanhood," Rachel writes about searching the scriptures:

If you are looking for verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. 
If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them. 
If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. 
If you are looking for for verses with which to liberate or honor women, you will find them. 
If you are looking for reasons to wage war, you will find them. 
If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, you will find them. 
If you are looking for an out-dated, irrelevant ancient text, you will find it. 
If you are looking for truth, believe me, you will find it. 
This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not "what does it say?", but "what am I looking for?" 
I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, 
"Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened." 
If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. 
If you want to heal, you will always find the balm.

Rachel lived a life of faith and intellectual and theological inquiry, and that life was cut short by a disastrous convergence of illness and allergic reaction. Her husband Dan, her two children (ages 3 and 1), her entire family, and a community of like-minded Christians (and even some who were not like-minded) are grieving. Her compassionate, articulate voice encouraged countless "wanderers" from the church-folds of their childhood to find a faith they could live with integrity.

And she did it all as one soaked in the fruits of the Spirit-- love, joy, peace; patience, kindness, generosity; faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I have been home from my trip for a little less than a day, and I am still as heartsick as when I was crying in the Regal Battery Park lobby.

This is not possible. I don't know how to reckon with it. All I can do is turn to my own faith in the God who brings life from death.

Each morning of the Easter season I have said this prayer from the PCUSA Book of Common Worship, a prayer of thanksgiving for baptism. Today I share it in the hope and wonder of the faith we proclaim... in hope that, for any who might, like me, be reeling with loss, it offers some slight balm for the soul... and in the hope expressed by Rachel in her most recent book, "Inspired":

"The story is not over."

O Lord our God, we give you thanks
for the new life you raise up in us
through the mystery of our baptism--
the sorrow of the heavy cross,
the surprise of the empty tomb,
the love that death could not destroy.

By the power of your Holy Spirit
poured out upon us in baptism,
fill us with the joy of your resurrection,
so that we may be a living sign
of your new heaven and new earth
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Easter Tuesday: Where I've Been

Dear Ones,

For you who have read this blog during Lent, it probably feels as if I've ghosted on you. I did disappear.

I tried to write a post titled: "Friday of Holy Week: What's so "Good" about it?"

But this year, Good Friday came to my congregation in the death-- the wholly unexpected death-- of one of our beloved members and Ruling Elders. It stayed right through Easter Sunday, with another death-- expected, but no less devastating, another beloved member and long-time leader. Pillars, both. Irreplaceable.

In that hour, words failed me.

There are surely words to say about Good Friday as we observe it in the Christian community, words to say about the Passion of Jesus Christ and how it is described in the gospel accounts and how it was understood by the early church.

But I didn't have access to those words last week.

On Easter Sunday I tried to share a message of hope that frankly acknowledged grief:

The grief of Mary Magdalene, not so easily dispelled, even with Jesus standing right in front of her...

Our own grief, the grief not only of my congregation, but also of each individual.... not easily dispelled.

Nor would we want it to be. Grief is the inevitable outcome when we love one another, as Jesus did, to the end. Grief is something to be honored, and lived faithfully, as all seasons of life.

We are in the midst of the season of Easter, the great fifty-day feast of victory for our God. There are "Alleluias" to be sung, loudly and joyfully!

Let that be, I pray, a balm in our grief. Let the words of resurrection ring true in our ears and our hearts. Let it be our constant hope, even as we honor the grief that is with us and in us now.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Thursday of Holy Week: A Not-Working Maundy Thursday

Today was planned as a work day, Maundy Thursday, one of my favorite days in the Christian year.

The alarm was set for 7. Yesterday, following a fairly intense day (good-intense... as being with people you love and care for tends to be), I'd taken an evening walk with my beloved.

It wasn't an exercise-walk. No one got their desired steps in, or got their heart rate to that specific fitness-creating level. Instead, the walk was designed to help me to uncoil, to let my shoulders relax. To let me breathe in the fresh, outdoor air. To let me not, for a while, do what can be the most precious, beautiful work I get to do, but instead, to do the work of coming home to my not-work self.

That possibly sounds like a funny thing for a pastor to say, since the line between work and not-work is a lot more fluid for us. And our work looks, often, like what everyone does all the time-- listening, talking, processing, offering words we hope are helpful.

I love my work.

But I need not-work time, too. And last night, with my beloved, I claimed about 40 minutes of it.
From the 40-minute, not-exercising walk.

We walked slowly, and not far.

We walked on the Washington Street Bridge, which crosses the Susquehanna River right next to its confluence with the Chenango River.

We looked at the sun-- sinking, but not yet setting. Still bright.

We looked at the water, churning from recent heavy rainfall.

We walked into Confluence Park, and decided to stop short of intruding on a very sweet-looking couple down by the water.

And then we walked back to the car.

I slept well. I felt refreshed when I awakened.

For about the first 30 minutes of wakefulness, I felt great.

Then, the stomach bug hit.

And now, hours later, on a couch and not at church, I have missed both services I was going to lead today, one at a beautiful hospice facility, and the other for my beautiful congregation.

The one I'm missing at my congregation is my favorite service of the year. The Lord's Supper and a Tenebrae, service of the lengthening shadows. It takes place in our Fellowship Hall. People are gathered around tables. On each table there is a loaf of bread, a tray of small cups of juice-- for the supper-- and a small candle-holder, holding seven tea-lights-- for the Tenebrae.

By the end of the evening, the assembled faithful will have heard the story of Jesus' last night with his disciples, before his death-- stories of both the meal and of Jesus washing his disciples' feet. They will have broken and shared bread and cup.

They will also have heard the story of Jesus' passion and death, in voices from all four gospels. They will have extinguished the seven votive candles on their table.

By then, the room will have been in darkness.

Then, a low handbell will have tolled twelve times, once for each disciple who deserted Jesus.

The congregation will have prayed the Lord's Prayer-- by heart, because it's dark.

And they will have been dismissed with the words,
"Go in peace. Love one another as Christ has loved us."

And, for the first time in twelve years, I was not there.

I know, intellectually, that this does not make me a disciple who has deserted Jesus. (Although, I'm sure I am, more often than I'd like to admit.)

But I have never had such a sad sick day.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Wednesday of Holy Week: Making It Your MUST

I can't leave my house without making my bed.

I know. At my age, that's not exactly a boast. It's more a confession. 

There are times when I think, "I'm the only one who is going to see this. Why not just leave it?

That's a complete lie. IT WOULD NEVER OCCUR TO ME. I am incapable.

Now, I am not a great housekeeper. Ask anyone who has ever set foot in my house. Lots of piles of magazines and paper and mail. Nothing that ascends to the standards of hoarding, but I am definitely at ease with a certain amount of dishevelment. I'm not sure why making my bed is such a MUST for me. But, I must.

This Lent I believe I've added another MUST to my life: Morning prayer and scripture reading. I also tried to write here, and managed to do that somewhat regularly until last week, when my life as a pastor became predictably busy as Holy Week approached. 

And, any other Lent, I'd be kicking myself about that. I love writing, I love scripture, and I love Jesus. I always hope to contribute my little bit towards something that might be nourishing or helpful. I wanted to do that for Lent.

But this Lent, I recognized that, if something had to go, on a particular day, it could not be morning prayer. 

I'm using the new PCUSA Daily Prayer Book. It's familiar (my old one is falling apart). But it's also new, and, for me, a fresh, rich resource for personal devotions. (Or group; it's set up so that it can be used both ways.)

And, I suppose, it goes back to the old axiom from air travel. If the cabin pressure changes, and the oxygen mask drops in front of you, PUT ON YOUR OWN MASK before trying to help anyone else.

It's counterintuitive, especially for Jesus-y people. We assume we're supposed to help the other guy first.

Growing things.
But you can't put the oxygen mask on the person next to you if you've passed out.

And you can't pour from an empty bucket.

You can't pour from an empty bucket.

You can't pour from an empty bucket.

This Lent, I've started prioritizing making sure my own bucket is full before thinking I'm capable of offering something that will be helpful to someone else.

Prayer and scripture, first thing, go a long, long way to filling me up.

And after a Lent in which I prioritized them, they are now on my MUST list. I can't not do it. 

To be clear, this isn't about moral rectitude. It's about habit-building. 

I finally managed to build this habit that I have long known I needed.

Hoping and praying for you all, that you find that thing that fills your bucket, and find a way to make it your MUST.