Tuesday, December 20, 2011

“Not What You Expected” December 18, 2011 (Advent 4A)

 Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! God is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a child, whom you will name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Child of the Most High, and  God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his realm there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Child of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. 


Will you pray with me? Gracious God of good surprises, give us wisdom to see your gifts in all things, even when we don’t believe you could possibly be a part of our lives, when what has happened seems so far from what you would want or desire for our lives. Open our eyes and hearts to your grace, not only in the little happenings of our lives, but in your greatest gift to us, your Child, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

 Travelling! We’ve been on a journey the last few weeks, and now we are at our destination. We have arrived!  But is what we were looking for? Is it what we thought we wanted?

We are going into a difficult time of year for me—winter. I’ve never been officially diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I think I might have a touch of it. Some of the most difficult experiences of my life have happened in the January – March timeframe, too, and so those months bring that pain and struggle back to mind. In February, especially, I find myself taking “cyber-vacations” to lush tropical islands by surfing all those hotel and B&B websites, fantasizing about being on those beaches, relaxing beside those pools, walking in those gorgeous gardens, enjoying the luscious meals they describe, experiencing the night life… But of course I have to wonder—is it really that good? Or are those descriptions like real-estate listings, where “cozy and intimate” means, “too small for more than one person?” Or “ideal for handyman” means “tear it down and start over?” Or “expansive lawns” means “get a goat and a couple of sheep to mow the grass?” I’ve read accounts of people who had that experience—the “full breakfast every day,” meant cold cereal and toast, lukewarm coffee and watery orange juice; where the rooms looked good in the pictures only because they were carefully prepped, and you couldn’t smell the musty odour from the closet. When I lived on the East Coast, we knew the code for beach hotels—“beach front” meant across the street from the beach, “beach views” meant that if you craned your neck around the balcony you could catch a glimpse of the beach,” only “on the beach” really meant that your windows looked out on the beach. But if you didn’t know the code, you could be sadly disappointed—you didn’t get what you expected.

On the other hand, there’s the other experience as well—when you go somewhere not expecting much and are surprised. A few years ago I was looking for a place to go on a retreat by myself. I didn’t want anything organised or planned—I had my own reading and praying and thinking to do, and I didn’t need guidance on it. I just wanted a quiet place in the country where I could stay, where I could feel God’s presence, where I could leave behind my responsibilities and simply be open to God’s moving in my life. I found several places but most of them were places where you had to meet with a spiritual director to plan even a solo retreat, or they were too close to a city or too expensive or too primitive or too far away…none were quite what I wanted. But then I found a location that I thought would do. Absolutely nothing was specifically organized for people staying there—yoga or art classes and prayer services were sometimes offered in the evenings, but each person was free to go or not as they wished. Everyone had their own cottage, and did their own cooking, so you never had to deal with another person if you didn’t want to. On the other hand…the cottages looked a little close together, and then I also wondered about how I would fill up all the time, and it was still three hours away, but it seemed the best choice. It was not what I expected. Simple cottages the size of a bachelor apartment, set in the woods around a field and arranged so that you didn’t see most of the other cottages, gardens and woods and pathways to walk and explore, a good library at the main building, quiet, and solitude that was respected. It was everything that I wanted and needed, but it was not what I expected.

Mary couldn’t have known what to expect. I mean, simply the fact of an angel showing up must have been confusing—to start with, how did she know it was an angel? We always think of angels as having wings and flowing hair, but certainly not all of them do—especially the ones we meet here on Earth. And then the news—you’re going to have a baby! I’m sure that Mary did expect to have children—it was just part of a woman’s life in those days, like going to school these days. But as she points out—she’s never been with a man. Notice she doesn’t say that she isn’t married—which was the human scandal, that she was having a baby out of wedlock, and her fiancĂ© was not the father. She probably would have been forgiven if Joseph had been the father—a lapse but a forgivable and very common one. I’ve seen statistics that show that in the 1700s, perhaps 25% of women were pregnant at marriage, as shown by the fact that their first children were born less than eight months after they were married.  So it was not really a big deal to simply be pregnant when she was married—but Joseph was not the father.  That was the difficulty and potential scandal. But Mary’s more focused on the hows, though—how can she become pregnant?

And I think she must have been thinking—anyone would be—“how can this be good? God is asking me to do this, so it must be all right, but how in the world can this be a good thing?”

One of my favourite new Christmas songs—not a traditional carol—is Mary Did You Know? by Clay Aiken, most famously sung by Kathy Mattea. I think anyone who has parented—which is all of us—can identify with the lyrics—we hold a baby and wonder what she or he be like as an adult, how we can help to raise him or her to be a loving, kind human being. And we wonder if Mary knew what we know--this infant, this tiny child is God incarnate. The last line especially, can bring me to tears—“The sleeping Child you're holding is the Great, I Am.”

There’s been a lot of debate and discussion about whether Mary is degraded or lifted up in this—whether she is seen as a walking womb, so to speak, or as a person with a choice and influence in the situation. Some people will even say that Mary was, in effect, raped by God—that she had no choice because God is in a position of authority over her and she doesn’t have the ability to say no to God. I think that view is totally wrong for two reasons. One is that this is not about biology—if we try to see this as a physical, biological process, we are on the wrong road. Yes, it is literal in that a baby was born, but if we try to see this too literally and try to figure out ways and means, we lose the meaning. Quite without human means, God came to earth as a baby. How God did that is not something that be explained or even discussed in human terms, anymore than we can discuss how God created the earth in literal human terms. Secondly, Mary did have a choice. We don’t read it in the way the angel makes the announcement—Gabriel seems to assume a lot—but Mary is not afraid to challenge the angel. She is not prepared to assume that this can just happen—she accepts it. We always see this in the Bible—an angel tells someone what God wants them to do—Isaiah in the temple being told to speak truth to power, David called to be a ruler, Moses told to go set God’s people free—and they consent. Every one of them says, “Yes, I will do what God asks of me.” They had a choice. We don’t know what would have happened if they said no—that’s not our story—but God would have made another way.

My point here, though, is that Mary said yes—even though she didn’t quite know what it was all about, she trusted that God had a purpose and a reason for asking her. She knew the difficulties ahead of her if she said yes—but she did.

And the result was not what she expected! Over and over again, God surprised her. Joseph did not abandon her. Her baby grew up to be a teacher and healer, not the carpenter she expected; nor did he simply gather students around him as would be expected of a teacher. He didn’t overthrow the Romans, as she must have thought the Messiah would. Jesus wasn’t rescued from the cross by an army of angels. And he didn’t stay in the tomb, either. Over and over God surprises her and us.

God does what God does, and that often upsets human expectations and wants. It’s not what we expected—but like the vacation that is even better than you expected and planned for, God’s surprises always bring us to be more of who we are, nourish us in ways we didn’t know we needed, and draw us closer to God.

No one who was looking for the Messiah, who was hoping for God’s help, who struggled under Rome’s rule, who looked at Israel’s history, could have guessed that God would choose this way to come to earth. As another new Christmas carol says, “What a strange way to save the world.” It is not what anyone expected.

In this season of surprises, remember God’s greatest unexpected gift of all—that baby, laid in a manger, who had come to be God with us, Emmanuel.  The gift you need from God will be given to you—but it will not be what you expect. It will be more than you ever hoped for or dreamed of.

In the name of the God who journeys with us, amen.

Monday, December 12, 2011

"In Reverse: God is Turning Things Upside Down" Advent 3B

Isaiah 61:1-11
The spirit of our God is upon me, because the Holy One has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of God’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Holy One, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; but you shall be called priests of the Holy One, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. Because their shame was double, and dishonour was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs. For I the Holy One love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom God has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Holy One, my whole being shall exult in my God, who has clothed me with the garments of salvation, and has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

John 1:6-28
There was one sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humans, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of an only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Child, who is close to the Creator’s heart, who has made him known.
This is the testimony given by John when the religious leaders sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”
And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of our God,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”
John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Will you pray with me? God who is present in all places and times, open our hearts to be aware of your presence in our lives today, here and now. Give us grace to accept your love for us, and the courage to share that love with others. In the name of your child, our saviour Christ, amen.

As I prepared for worship this week, I realized that we needed one more reading. It’s one of the suggested readings for this week in Advent, and in fact is the reading that gives it the name Rejoicing Sunday. This reading is from Luke 1, and is sometimes called the Magnificat, from the Latin for the first word, which means, “I will magnify.”

“Mary said, “My soul magnifies God, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for the Holy One has looked with favour on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name. God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. Almighty God has shown strength with God’s arm; and God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  The Holy One has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; and has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

What an amazing affirmation to come from Mary! Remember, this is the young woman who was found to be pregnant before she was married, something so shameful that her fiancĂ©, Joseph, who knew he had had nothing to do with her pregnancy, thought of breaking their engagement. She has been shamed, embarrassed. I can easily imagine the gossips of Nazareth looking down their noses at her and whispering as she passed. Remember, in those days, engagement was considered as binding as a marriage, and extra-marital affairs were punished by stoning. Women were essentially the property of the men in their lives—fathers, brothers, husbands, sons—and legitimacy of the children was very important in that culture.

So Mary has turned things upside down—and not in a good way for those around her! She is pregnant, but Joseph is not the father. He’s considering not marrying her after all, we read in another gospel, and he is only convinced to marry her anyway because of an angel in a dream. This is serious stuff!

And yet Mary is overjoyed to be expecting this baby—she sings this wonderful song of excitement and joy and praise to God, because she is expecting a baby who will do wonderful things for human beings. There will be a reversal of everything—the poor will be rich, the rich poor; the hungry will be full and those who have everything will have nothing. All that is wrong will become right, and those who have done what is wrong will get what they deserve. Everything will be turned inside out and fixed.

We’re talking about journeys this Advent… We’ve all had reverses in our travels, haven’t we? The luggage that’s lost, the car that breaks down, the child that gets sick, the map that wasn’t right—or maybe the GPS that we didn’t trust—the flights delayed or cancelled.  Sometimes those events make the rest of the trip even more important—the difficulties in getting home for a family Christmas make it even more special, the shared complications of a difficult trip bring out the best in our travelling companions. There’s a saying that if you really want to get to know someone, try building something with them or taking a trip with them! Those reversals help us to see what is good, and to appreciate what is good and right—sometimes only in hindsight, after it is all over, but those changes give us the opportunity to try again.

Remember in CS Lewis’s book—or maybe you’ve seen the movie—The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe that it was always winter and never Christmas, under the rule of the White Witch? But then Aslan, the son of the Emperor Across the Sea, arrives, and so does Father Christmas. The snow begins to melt, and the White Witch’s sleigh becomes useless; her powers wane away, in spite of her attempting to kill Aslan, and she is conquered. Aslan is a symbol of Christ in these novels; he is slain and rises again, he appears to several people throughout the series The Chronicles of Narnia, and he returns at the end.. When things begin to go backward—when the winter begins to fade—we know God is near.

And that’s what God is doing with the world in Jesus’ birth. God is rearranging the world, making the rich poor and vice versa. That reversal is in fact a very signal of God’s presence among us—when things start going backwards, we know God is present.

We can be at the very bottom of our well, no hope, no sight of a way out, desperate for another option, and certain this is the end, there is no solution—and it is in those moments that God comes to us and shows us how this upended life offers us a way, a new path.

I have been in this place. I was a destructive, abusive relationship with someone who denied that who I was, who I am, had validity or worth. I saw no way out. Because of circumstances—financial and personal—I felt that I was trapped. I saw no way out of this relationship, hellish as it was, even though it had scattered all my life-plans, all my hopes and plans and even my calling. When I saw no way, God sent a way—family members and dear friends who offered validation of who I was, encouragement as I struggled to find that way out, and support as I left the relationship and established myself again. It is no exaggeration to say that without those angels, those messengers from God, I would not be living out God’s purpose for my life. I would either be still in that destructive relationship or quite possibly dead. God sent me a way when I saw no way; God made that reversal possible.

We all have stories, or have heard stories, of people in similar circumstances—stripped of almost everything, without hope, utterly cast down. And then there’s a light, a hope—and that beam of hope becomes a rope to pull us out of that cast down place. Maybe it was financial straits, maybe it was a bad relationship, maybe it was loss of employment or income, maybe it was an addiction—whatever it was, God came to us in those times when everything we knew was in pieces around us…shattered, broken, scattered around us like so many shards of glass. The bits of our lives… But until we had come to that point, were we able to see and hear God’s guiding presence? If God had spoken to us one moment earlier, would we have heard? If we had known of God’s presence when things were just OK, would we have paid attention?

The power of God’s action in our lives comes from this fact—when life is at its worst, that is when God offers a reversal, a renewal—when things have most truly fallen apart, God’s grace comes to us, and offers a way when there seems to be no way.

Mary—pregnant when society said she should not be; the person struggling with addiction; the spouse caught in an abusive relationship; the worker in a dead-end job; the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered teen of homophobic parents; the employee laid off two weeks before Christmas, the homeless family ….and then God’s presence is clear, and the reversal comes, and God’s purpose is worked out.

It doesn’t mean that everything goes back to the way it was before, or that all of life is now perfect—but it does mean that we are living our lives as God intended. We have seen the reversal God sent, and our lives are on the right road. We have found the right map, the car is repaired, our luggage is found.

And what else can we do but sing in joy?! Mary rejoices over God’s promises of the poor becoming wealthy, the empty full and satisfied, the ones who were cast down lifted up. We too celebrate—freedom from addiction, healing from abuse, new confidence in who we are, a new path of opportunity and hope… Indeed, what else can we do but celebrate?

Well, here’s something else we can do. We can stop to look at our own lives, and what part we truly play in the reversals of other people. Are we willing to admit that we, too, are a cause, sometimes, of those shattered lives? Or are we afraid to have our world turned upside down? Are we the poor who will hear the good news of reversal, or are we the ones responsible for their poverty? Are we the broken-hearted who will be healed, or have we broken their hearts? Are we the captives who will be freed, or are we the captors who have restrained them? On what side of the reversals do we find ourselves? Did we neglect to tag our luggage properly, to be sure the car engine was tuned up, to allow enough time between flights?

I think these are legitimate questions to ask. We cannot take on the blame for all the world’s ills, but we also have to admit that we are oppressors and deniers and unforgiving—just as much as we are oppressed and denied and unforgiven.

Yes, my former partner denied God’s image and action in me and in my life—but I too denied God’s presence in my life and calling and allowed my vocation to be denigrated. If I was belittled and put down, I also denied the truth of my life and of God’s action in me.

In this season of preparation for God’s arrival among us once again, as a tiny baby in a manger, it is time to examine our own hearts for God’s presence, our own actions for errors.

Which side of the reversals of others are we on? Are we casting them down—emptying them, refusing to forgive, taking all they have, not recognizing the image of God in them? Or are we lifting them up—sharing God’s grace, filling them with good things, forgiving, loving, supporting them as they seek to fulfill God’s purpose for them and for us?

While we rejoice in the good that has been done for us, we cannot forget that others too, need that hand, that blessing, that support or forgiveness or hope that we can offer them.

 This year, let’s put our lives into reverse—reverse the sorrow, dismay, despair, pain, hopelessness and fear and turn them into joy, hope, healing, peace, and comfort. Let’s recognise the reversals from hope to grief as well as from sorrow to joy—especially the ones we have had a part in—and then do something about it. And then we can all truly sing Joy to the World.

In the name of the God who travels with us, amen.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

"The Ones Who Point the Way," Advent 2B (December 4, 2011), World AIDS Day (observed)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of our God, make straight in the desert a highway for the Holy One. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of God shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Human One comes with might, and God’s arm rules; God’s reward is with him, and God’s recompense before him. The Human One will feed God’s flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Child of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of our God,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Will you pray with me? God who is present in all places, open the eyes of our hearts so that we can see you clearly and recognise your love for us; teach us to accept your wisdom, to trust your will and act in ways that reflect your love for us. In all your names we pray, amen.

It’s time to leave on our journey! We’re on a journey this Advent—the season of four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Last week, the first Sunday in Advent, we talked about preparing for this journey, and what we should be packing and how to get ready for the trip.

Today we’re actually setting out—getting in the plane, train, automobile, cruise ship, dogsled, whatever—and going towards our destination. We know where we’re going and how to get there—we’ve packed what we need for the journey and for when we arrive. Now we’re experiencing that journey.

When we travel, we don’t have to blaze a new trail or chart unknown waters. We have maps, paved roads, courses already laid out for us. People have been there before us—the planners and builders of those roads, the airline and rail people who have the routes all figured out. They give us not only signs along the way so we know what road we’re on and how far to the next city, they also let us know what restaurants and gas stations are at the next exit. When our plane lands, they tell us the local time and weather, and what the gates are for connecting flights. There are travellers’ aid stations in many airports and train stations—they are there to help travellers who need some assistance—they missed a connection and aren’t sure how to get another flight, or they are travelling with a baby and they ran out of diapers, or they have a long layover and need a safe place to rest for four or five hours….

Have you ever been to a maze? Temporary ones are very popular in the fall, made of hay bales or cornstalks; European palaces often included mazes formed from hedges as a form of entertainment. Mazes are intended to get people lost—they are deliberately confusing, unlike a labyrinth, which leads a person in and then back out. No, mazes want to get you lost! Corn mazes are grown—the corn is planted in the form of the maze and as it grows, it becomes harder and harder to see the other parts of the maze, because the corn grows so high that a person can’t see over it. Usually when you go through such a maze, they will give you a flag. In the centre of the maze, up in a tower, is a spotter, someone who can guide you out of the maze. When you are completely lost, sure you can’t get out of the maze—or into the centre—you can raise your flag and the spotter will guide you.

We all have people like that in our lives, I hope—people who can show us the way, lead us, guide us, people who have been there before and know the road. We aren’t on this journey alone, after all—other people have been there before us and can help us get there. They can see what lies ahead and tell us we should turn right or ignore that path to the left. They can often see what we cannot, remind us of choices we have forgotten we had, or never knew we had.

Today we are remembering World AIDS Day, on this the Sunday closest to December 1st. We all know someone who is living with HIV/AIDS; perhaps we ourselves are living with HIV/AIDS; many of us have lost someone dear to us to HIV/AIDS.  The struggle to find treatments, effective preventive measures, even a cure, has been led by many people. Some of them were heroic in the fullest sense of the word—working with tears and hope mixed to identify the virus, to isolate it, learn its secrets in order to conquer it. Others have been no less hard working, but as concerned with the profit making end of the struggle—and yet they too have contributed to reduce infections, mitigate the effects, and offer treatments. The truth is that our guides are as human as we are, and while they may be exemplary in one part of their lives, they are far from it in other areas. Does that matter? Personally, if someone offers a reduction in suffering, in infection rates, in deaths, I will not refuse it. Their moral failings are between them and God, and it may be that what they offer to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS offsets their wrongdoing in God’s eyes.

Guides may not be perfect—but they do offer a path, a way to the place we need and want to be.

John the Baptist was not perfect—he seems to have been rough and antagonistic to people. But he was still like that spotter in the maze, offering people a chance to change their lives, to try a new path. He was a guide to their new journey, offering them repentance. Repentance for or to what, we don’t really know—Mark is not very specific about that. John simply tells the people to repent and change their ways, that they are too complacent and think they are OK, but they need to begin a new life.

John is not clear on what that new life was to be—but then, he was the guide, not the teacher. He was like the airline staff, telling us the temperature in Miami—but not what to wear to stay cool, or to drink lots of water. He warns the people—telling them to turn left or right, but not what to do when they get there.

That is what Jesus does—offers a new way of living, not just a new way to get to old ways of living. But in this Advent journey, we are still on the way to that stable, that manger where Jesus will be born.

So for now, we are still on that journey…we have good maps, travel guides, assistance on the way. Who are some of your guides? Perhaps parents, or friends, or siblings—maybe your partner helps you find your way. Or maybe you find a road map in books—the Bible, of course, but maybe also in the books of Thomas Merton, or the writings of Archbishop Desmond Tutu; perhaps in the lives of people like Harvey Milk, Rev. Troy Perry, Albert Schweitzer, or Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. There are many guides, many road maps, some better than others—we just need to be sure they are pointing to the place we want to go. If we’re heading to London, we don’t need a map of Michigan. But those guides who point us in the right direction—they are the heralds that Isaiah is talking about—they are smoothing out the road, making the heights accessible and the low places safe. They are showing us the path, the road, to take.

Who are your guides? Who are the people or images or books or movies that  help you find your way? Check them often, and always when you are in doubt. That is what they are for. Raise that flag and ask for help from the spotter in the centre of the maze; they will guide you.

Christmas is coming—do you know the way? Follow your guides—they know the safest path to Bethlehem.

In the name of the God who journeys with us, amen.

A Litany for World AIDS Day
One: Gracious God, we celebrate your love for us all, and give thanks that You listen to us when we pray to You. Send your Spirit upon us now and lift us up. Encourage and strengthen us. Instill in us your wisdom, and increase our faith. Hear us, O God, as we pray on this World AIDS Day:
Many: Help us stop AIDS and keep the promise.
One: Hear us, O God, on this World AIDS Day as we pray for all those who are living with HIV and AIDS, and for all those affected: family members, friends and lovers, all of us. We rejoice that many now receive life-saving medication, and give thanks for medical advances, creative advocacy and generosity that have made this possible. But so many have already died, so many continue to suffer, so many are cut off from vital information and medication. Help us to work for universal access to treatment and to support research toward a cure. For the sake of all who suffer:
Many: Help us stop AIDS and keep the promise.
One: Hear us, O God, on this World AIDS Day as we pray for the millions of children who have lost parents, and for the millions of children who are themselves living with HIV or AIDS. Empower us to help change conditions that put them at risk: poverty, war, lack of education, and inadequate heath care. For the sake of the children:
Many: Help us stop AIDS and keep the promise.
One: : Hear us, O God, on this World AIDS Day as we pray for women, celebrating the many gifts they bring to the front lines of response to this pandemic. as caregivers, educators, entrepreneurs and activists. But we know too, many women are vulnerable millions around the world at risk for infection. Show us how to protect, empower and heal all women and girls, in our own communities and throughout the world. For the sake of our sisters:
Many: Help us stop AIDS and keep the promise.
One: Hear us, O God, on this World AIDS Day as we pray for all those affected by or living with HIV or AIDS here, in Canada. Help us increase our capacity for effective response in communities which are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS.
Many: Help us stop AIDS and keep the promise.
One: Hear us, O God, on this World AIDS Day and help us to eliminate AIDS-related stigma and discrimination. Help us break through silences that block effective response: let us teach all who are vulnerable about the means to prevent infection, let us encourage the frightened to know their HIV status, let us encourage all who are at risk to seek treatment. In the power of your love, which casts out fear:
Many:: Help us stop AIDS and keep the promise.
One: Hear us, O God, on this World AIDS Day and help us to nurture in ourselves and in our community faithful stewardship of your good gift of sexuality. Help us to reclaim this powerful gift, teach us to use and enjoy this blessing so that your sons and daughters may grow in the values of love, self esteem, and sexual health, and your communities may grow in mutual responsibility, justice, and inclusivity.
Many: O God, embolden us with your Spirit, so that we can stop AIDS and keep the promise. Grant that your church may be a healing presence in the face of HIV and AIDS. Show us your vision and guide us to the words and actions that will make a difference. On this World AIDS Day, we raise our prayers to You, placing our trust in You for compassion, healing and courage in the struggle to stop AIDS, to keep the promise. Hear us and answer us according to the richness of your mercies. Amen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"Coming Out--A Guide"

A note to the reader:
  • A few words of warning—this is not meant to be comprehensive, or legal advice, or any of that. This is more of  a “I wish I had known” list of suggestions and thoughts. Some of them I learned from direct experience myself, and others from what I have seen others deal with. Tailor this to your situation/needs/circumstances.
  • For my non-LGBT readers and friends--please take this as an education. Some of you are very aware of the issues and concerns I am discussing. Others may not be. 
  • And this is, of course, not the last word. There are many books out there on the coming out process; this is meant as a quick once-over--have you thought of this? What about that? Things I wish I or others had thought about before we came out the way we did.
  • And for all of you--any constructive suggestions for improving this are gratefully accepted! 

First of all, I’m discussing the practical aspects of coming out—not the emotional/spiritual/psychological sides, which are several posts—heck, several books—in and of themselves. Some of this practical stuff will affect and is affected by the other aspects, naturally—again, take what you need how you need it.

Much of it is applicable to any major life change—divorce, serious illness, birth of a child, etc. So it won’t all be geared to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered issues by any means, although that is the main focus. These are things to think about, consider, plan for, as you contemplate coming out. It’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s a start.

And of course, consult a professional for advice specific to your situation—lawyer, accountant, financial advisor, etc.

A very basic question: do you have enough independent income to live on? If you currently share expenses with someone else (spouse, partner) or are still living at home with parents/guardians, and you are not sure you will be able to continue in that living arrangement if you come out, you must be sure you can survive on your own. Add up all your expenses on a yearly basis—mortgage/rent, insurance (car, homeowners/tenants, life), car payment, utilities, amount spent on groceries, cell phone, medical care, pet care, home/car maintenance (tune-ups, furnace inspections, etc.), membership fees (professional associations, union dues, gym, etc.), condo fees, holiday gifts, birthday presents, vacations, savings—everything that you pay for throughout the year. If you’re in school, you’ve got tuition, room, board, fees, books, etc. Will you have enough money? What is “enough” will, again, depend on your situation. You may be willing and able to survive on noodle soup and a mattress on the floor of a basement apartment in order to live your truth. But if you have children, are finishing your education, or have a medical condition, you will want to be sure you have a safe, healthy place to live and a way to pay for your schooling and medical care. Only you know what your absolute rock-bottom needs are—make sure they can be met.

Remember, if you are currently married, and you end up divorcing, your spouse may or may not have to pay child support and/or maintenance—this varies depending on circumstances, including where you live. You cannot count on that income, and again, depending on circumstances, you may have to pay child support.

Some advice from that above mentioned experience, mine and others: before you make the coming-out statement, before you begin anything irrevocable, set your financial house in order. Pay down or off on your credit cards, pay off your car, make sure your insurance is paid up, be sure your have enough in your savings account to cover six months with no income plus the deductible on your car insurance…put yourself in a position of financial strength. We all hope that all will go well and those who are in financial partnership with us or are supporting us (parents/guardians) will not be vindictive or use finances as a way to control us. But we do not know how someone might react or what circumstances might arise. Look at it as starting your life anew, afresh, and that includes your finances.

This is related to finances.  Think about both your current job and your long-term goals or your occupation. Are they places where you will feel safe coming out? Your profession as a whole might be accepting, but is the company or office you are a part of comfortable with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people? You may want to look for a job in another company in the same field or another office of the company that you currently work for that is more accepting—make that part of your coming out. If your work location is not accepting and changing work locations or company is not feasible, how will you handle it? If you are part of a union, what are the union policies? Coming out to the union steward, if she or he is supportive, before coming out to your boss or HR head is wise. If you are self-employed, will coming out affect your ability to attract or retain clients/customers/patients?

You may find that you have to change professions or field if you come out—for example, some religious groups will not allow LGBT people to serve as pastors or even as lay leaders in congregations or in the administrations of churches or denominations, and until recently, the US military banned LGBT people from serving. Some school districts or principals will not be comfortable with an out LGBT person in the classroom, especially if you teach physical education. And so on. How will you make such a change? You may be able to transfer to another church or school district—but do you know what is required in order to do that and how long it might take? How will you find out what is needed? How will you support yourself if you must return to school or undertake an internship or other training program?

If you are in school, think about these same ideas in terms of school. What is the climate like at school? Does homophobic bullying occur? How do teachers and staff handle it—do they stop it, ignore it, say something but not follow up? Are there any out staff members? A gay-straight alliance? You probably cannot transfer schools easily, but if you can, you may want to consider it. If you are in college or university, the same questions apply, but you may be able to transfer schools or campuses more easily. Consider the possible effect on your student aid package—if your parents choose to discontinue paying part of your expenses, you may be eligible for more aid. There are also scholarships specifically for LGBT students.

We always hope for the best reaction from those we care about the most. Unfortunately, we don’t always get it. Think about your family and friends. How do you think they will react when you come out to them? It can be very painful, but think hard about which of your friends and family will stick with you—will you have a support system? You will need one, so look for four or five friends and family members  you know will be rock solid support for you and who can keep a confidence—maybe your parents, or a grandparent or uncle or aunt, maybe a former teacher, or your friend since grade three… They are the ones you will want to tell first. If you cannot come up with some friends and family who you are sure will support you, you may want to wait to come out to them until you have more of a support network.

If you are active in your local community, think about how coming out will be received by others in the community—the parents of the Little League team you coach, the other members of your Bible study group, your book club. If you hold offices in any organizations—from PTA to Kiwanis to a professional organization—how will the organization receive your coming out? Will you be asked to resign, to move to a less visible position in the organization, or will it have no effect?

Both physical and mental—how is your health? If you have a chronic illness, such as diabetes or fibromyalgia, you will need health coverage—how will any possible changes in your income or profession affect your health insurance? If you have had a serious illness that requires follow-up and continued care, such as cancer or HIV/AIDS, this also applies to you.

If you are subject to depression or another mood disorder, know that coming out can be very hard on your mood—expect changes, not always for the better. Your therapist should be one of the first you can and do come out to. If you don’t feel safe doing that, find another therapist! He or she can help you navigate the reefs of coming out into a new identity with your sanity intact.

Protection before coming out
Until you are ready to come out, be cautious. Not only do you need a support system, but you need to be ready, and to be outed before you are ready is devastating both for you and potentially for family and friends. You may face job loss, or upset family and friends, or comment in your local community. If you are married and your spouse does not know, there are even more potential issues. Therefore, I say be careful. I am NOT saying it’s OK to sneak around and intentionally deceive people. But you  have the right to maintain your own boundaries and come out when it is right for you—unless not coming out would hurt others more than coming out would.

Be aware that going to LGBT community spaces (bar, community center, support group) may expose you; visiting LGBT web sites may too, as may having a same-gender relationship. I am not saying you should not do these things—but be aware of possible consequences and plan for them.

And one more form of protection—if you do decide to engage in sexual behaviour, use protection—a condom or dental dam. As difficult as it is to come out safely, you do not want to add the stress of having to deal with a sexually transmitted infection on top of it—especially if you have had another relationship outside of what was supposed to be a monogamous relationship.

Reality check
Coming out will NOT solve all your problems. You will feel lightened, relief, as if a burden is gone. But you will also feel grief for the losses and changes in your life—even with the best outcome, there are always losses and changes. You will also find that while most people in the LGBT community are warm, kind people (one of my friends was hurt and upset that I came out to a mutual friend first, instead of to her), you will also find there are as many needy, clinging, arrogant, rude, and downright nasty people in the LGBT community as there are in the rest of the world. Simply because someone is LGBT and out does not mean they are friend material, much less potential partners. It can be downright depressing. But always balance that against continuing to live in the closet—coming out generally wins.

And what if you are “outed?”  Hopefully, you have been able to put some of this planning into action—you have people you know you can confide in, you have safe spaces, at least some of your work/school colleagues know and are supportive, and you have already contemplated the effect of coming out on your relationships—work, family, home, school, etc. If not, you will have to do a lot of work in a short time. Generally, even if people are not accepting, they are as upset that they didn’t know as they are about the fact that you are LGBT. With that in mind, have those conversations with crucial people—your boss (if it might affect your work), your spouse, parents, children, best friends. You may find that they suspected all along. If not, you have done your part—you have been honest with them. If they are upset or angry that you did not tell them earlier (before you were “forced” to), explain to them your fears and anxiety, and describe how the world still is not very hospitable to those who are different. If they still do not understand, keep an open mind and try to be forgiving. This is something you have known about yourself for a long time—they are just finding it out/having it confirmed. It will take them time, as it took you some time, to assimilate this new information about you.

I’ve gone through all this not to tell anyone when they should or should not come out, much less how to come out or to whom. There are some bedrock ideas—think and prepare before you come out, be sure you are in a safe place emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually before you do so, and that you have a support system in place, but also do come out as soon and as safely as you can. You will be healthier for it!

Clarence Darrow--Beyond Scopes and Leopold & Loeb

Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good histor...