Sunday, January 17, 2016

And Yes, the Dress Still Fits (Sort of)

Read the Frank and Funny Memoir of a Church-Geek Girl 

It's coming out in March and I couldn't be happier about it. Here's what SUNY Press has to say about PREACHING IN MY YES DRESS

Preaching in My Yes Dress

Read the Frank and Funny Memoir of a Church-Geek Girl 

A Lutheran pastor and a regular contributor to the Albany Times Union, Jo Page highlights, in her delightful new memoir, a series of childhood misfortunes and adult choices that led her in and out of the church. After more than twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches, Page explores how she continued to preach weekly words of hope she wasn't sure she even believed in Preaching in My Yes Dress.
Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers, says, "Preaching in My Yes Dress lives up to its wonderful title. Jo Page's memoir is a thoughtful, wide-ranging, and unusually frank chronicle of her spiritual journey. Anyone interested in Christianity, the daily realities of pastoral work, or the challenges of living an ethical life will find this book illuminating and inspiring."Preaching in My Yes Dress will be available in March. Pre-order your copy today!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Loss Markers

One of the ways I drive to work in Albany, NY, takes me down Sand Creek Road to Everett Road, just past where Jacquelyn Porreca was fatally stabbed two weeks ago at the hair salon where she worked.

In front of the studio a makeshift shrine has sprung up, the kind of impromptu shrine you see at the edge of the road when there has been a fatal car crash. On the salon stoop there are flowers, balloons, candles. The other day, driving home from work, I saw a couple standing there. I couldn’t hear them, but I could see that they were crying, holding each other the way we do when otherwise we would be holding on to emptiness, our hands more than  usually useless.

Earlier this month I spent a little time in Nova Scotia, driving around the south shore, toward Halifax and then on to the Bay of Fundy. The first day I stopped mid-morning at the shipbuilding town of Shelburne with its wide, graceful harbor. I lunched in Lunenberg, with its steep streets and brightly painted buildings. Then it was on to the Aspotogan Peninsula and lovely Bayswater Beach at dusk, the fog rolling in like anxious parents, cautioning of bedtime.

Image result for Shelburne harbor ns
Shelburne Harbour, Nova Scotia

The next day it was on to Grand Pre—French for “great meadow”--all low tide and red clay when I saw it, Fundy’s massive tides receding as if hastily packed up and threatening no return.

I spent my last day on Digby Neck, a 75-kilometer strip of giant pinky finger floating in the Bay of Fundy. It was on Digby Neck that I heard about Jerome.

“Jerome” was the only word he ever uttered, this young man found on the beach in 1863, both legs amputated below the knees and all the buttons of his coat cut off. No one knows any more than that about him, even now. For a while the Baptists in Digby tried to care for him. But his care was expensive and, since they thought he was of Mediterranean descent, Jerome was sent to a family on the French shore—the other side of Digby Neck--where he stayed until he died, something of a local phenomenon, for which his caretaking family charged admission. Of course, no one claimed Jerome any more in his death than they had in his life.

I have to say that I loved Nova Scotia, four days far too short a visit. And yet there was something raw and sad about my time there.

Graceful Shelburne’s sunny harbor features a memorial to those fisherman lost at sea. There are many of them and the names listed attest to the dangers of the sea well into the twentieth century. 

At colorful Lunenberg—just a short drive on—there is the same memorial. Different sculpture, of course, but equally somber, equally funereal. There are more names on this one: Lunenberg is larger.

By the time I got to Bayswater Beach, I’d read in the guidebook that here I’d find a memorial to the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111, of which there were no survivors. I made the short hike to the memorial and read the names. Some families perished together, perhaps the lucky ones. Mostly it was single names, leaving behind those who grieved them.

At Grand Pre it was more of the same: a UNESCO World Heritage site commemorating the wholesale removal of the Acadians, the French inhabitants who had settled the land, forging bonds with the aboriginal people long before the British came colonizing.

Image result for Bayswater beach swissair memorial
Swissair 111 Memorial Site, Bayswater Beach, Nova Scotia

How could I have loved so much a place that made me this sad? Isn’t vacation supposed to be fun?

It’s hard to say. But this much I know: even though not all losses are final--even when they feel that they are—life is marked by them. And in spending my days pausing before fallen fisherman and drowned passengers and displaced Acadians and poor Jerome-with-no-buttons, I come home to the knowledge that we must make what we can of what we have left.

That, it seems to me, is sacred duty--sad, onerous, humbling and true.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pilgrim in Dogtown

Smack dab in the center of Cape Ann--Massachusetts’ “other cape”--is Dogtown Commons, over 3000 acres of storied wilderness full of glacial erratics, abandoned colonial foundations and legendary tales of witches, wild dogs and wonderment.
Dogtown Road, Dogtown Commons

I learned of Dogtown Commons shortly after, as a single mother, I began to bring my young daughters out to Cape Ann for vacations. Dogtown, the guidebooks said, was not to be entered without a compass, ideally without a guide and certainly not without notifying family members you were going in. And because it had been the scene of a brutal murder in 1984, gruesomely described and painstakingly reported in Elyssa East’s excellent 2009 book, Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, I was never inclined to bring my daughters there, though I was mighty curious about the place.

But Dogtown has changed (a little) and my daughters are young women now and this year, during my visit to Cape Ann, I ventured past the desolate gate that separates the wild from the working class suburban.

Image result for Dogtown commons
The cover of Elyssa East's book
I went in.

I didn’t really expect to have the kind of spine-chilling sense of being followed that East describes in her book. I didn’t expect to see the strolling, black-caped warlock or the confounding teepee structures she saw. After all, her forays into Dogtown were in the naturally-more-mysterious autumn, when the tourists were gone—not that Dogtown itself has any--and the native eccentricity of Cape Ann is more apparent. (I’ve lived there in the off season and seen how the local culture supports it anomalies and eccentrics with tenderness and tolerance.)

Nevertheless, I went into Dogtown Commons with caution. Because it is easy to get lost there. It has been home to its share of oddballs and loose screws. And it’s a wild place, despite being surrounded on the periphery of the island by civilization. So I went in on high alert, channeling the sheer, subtle awareness of Buddha after he awakens.

But there is another strange aspect to Dogtown. During the Depression, Roger Babson, entrepreneur, business theorist and founder of Babson College in Wellesley (as well as tenth-generation of the Gloucester Babsons), took it into his head to hire unemployed stone-cutters from Cape Ann’s granite industry. He sent them into Dogtown to carve into the larger glacial boulders inspiring (?) and preachy admonitions to living the moral life. I’d long known that you could climb through the thick undergrowth of the barely perceptible pathways and see stones inscribed with eight-inch, bold font directives such as “Industry,” “Initiative,” “Integrity” as well as the more pointed supposed verities such as “When Work Stops, Values Decay,” “Prosperity Follows Service” and “Help Mother” (and I confess I rather like that last one).

Honestly, I’d never cared to see the Babson boulders. I’d wanted to experience the more raw and austere Dogtown, the scarier Dogtown where maybe I might catch sight of a warlock in a black cape. So when I entered the Commons a week ago and found myself espying the boulders, I was initially disappointed. Oh. These, I thought. “Kindness.” Sigh. “Truth.” What of it? Pontius Pilate asked Jesus what truth was and Jesus said nary a word. And these trees wouldn’t talk.

Then I walked some paces onward, tripping over stones (and it’s impossible not to trip in Dogtown, shifting, stony terrain that it is), the sun at noon, and I realized I was lost. Not lost exactly. But not found, either. The paths and the non-paths all look alike. There was nothing otherworldly happening. But it wasn’t comforting, either, this possible lost-ness. The locals don’t tend to swarm Dogtown. The tourists largely don’t know about it. There is no well-trod way.

And then I saw another boulder. I couldn’t see if it said anything. There were plenty of speechless boulders. I walked around the other side. And it said “Work.”

I wasn’t lost. I was on the path, as such a path it was.

And I began to see an uncomfortable irony: that the preachy, moralizing Babson who’d sent his hired workers to bastardize maxims in granite was now providing not a moral compass (I don’t need to be told “Never Try, Never Win”), but an actual verbal compass as I made my way through this small patch of strange wilderness.
Rocking an erratic
I felt an odd gratitude for the notations. But on emerging safely from the Commons, I felt an even stronger desire to re-enter a less prescriptive Dogtown—if only the one in my own head or heart—where I have subtler guides than clobbered boulders to help me chart my own paths.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Declaring Interdependence on the Fourth

These are stirring and familiar words from The Declaration of Independence:
            Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Image result for declaration of independence

Along with enjoying our sparklers, hanging out Old Glory and gathering around our grills, we do well to read Mr. Jefferson’s famous words all the way through.
            It is good to read—or to hear; it’s great oratory--The Declaration of Independence if for no other reason than to be reminded of what the shapers of this nation sought. They were not seeking blind obedience to an unchangeable set of rules. They weren’t after a might-makes-right mentality (in fact, they were trying to get away from that one with the British). Instead, they sought an opportunity to be thoughtfully self-governing, rather than exploited by a richer, stronger nation who saw, in the colonies’ resources, much that could benefit Britain—if only the colonists could be managed.
            Well, they couldn’t be managed. The colonists were driven by a dream. But not a fanciful dream: Jefferson says, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”
            The Declaration shows us that even before the United States was the United States, there was a hope that here, in this land, there would be the option for self-governance and the option for freedom to live as men and women chose.
            In these times, a certain kind of conservative Christianity and a certain kind of American politics seem strangely wedded to each other. A few years back, Newsweek ran a cross-wrapped stars-and-stripes on its cover. And “God bless the United States” has become the de rigueur tag line to end all political speeches, the way a preacher ends a sermon with “Amen.”
I’m sure that, in honor of the Fourth, some will raise glasses to toast the Supreme Court’s ruling, as I will. But others will wring hands and claim that both God’s word and the Constitution have been besmirched. Indeed, Bobby Jindal has already announced that the ruling “will pave the way for an all-out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision." And the fundamentalist Christian, American Family Association put out a statement saying “There is no doubt that this morning’s ruling will imperil religious liberty in America….” This is, of course, unlikely in the extreme.
And though I never thought I’d be favorably quoting Jeb Bush, his response to the Supreme Court ruling seems to me to be consistent with the vision espoused by Jefferson. Bush wrote, “In a country as diverse as ours, good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side.”
That seems to me to underscore the deeper meaning in The Declaration. If Jefferson was declaring our need for independence from Britain, he was also underscoring our interdependence with one another.
            John F. Kennedy spoke of our interdependence when he addressed the United Nations with these words in 1961: “Never have the nations of the world had so much to lose or so much to gain. Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames.”
            Martin Luther King, in his address “Beyond VietNam” given at Riverside Church in New York in 1967, knew our interdependence was crucial to our future when he said, “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”
            And Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence itself, warns us of what happens when we are not aware of our interdependence: “…all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
            The Declaration calls us to live a common life with one another, promoting each other’s “Safety and Happiness.” The challenge to do so and the opportunity remain ours.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Naming Names

The text for the sermon is from 1 John. Hear the word of the Lord:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. ….Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action….Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from God whatever we ask, because we obey God’s commandments. And this is God’s commandment: that we should believe in the name of God’s Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

Those two twinned healing stories that we heard in our gospel reading today—the healing of the woman with the flow of blood and the healing of Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter--are among my favorite Bible stories. They’re powerful. And moving. And they’re a beautifully structured, from a literary point of view, a story within a story, a healing within a healing. And honestly, I struggled long and hard to write a sermon that would serve our strange and tumultuous national context this week, using these stories.

Image result for mother emanuel ame church charleston sc
Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
But as I worked on it, I wrote with the Charleston, South Carolina massacre vying for attention in my brain. I worked on it, but then the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage came down. I worked on it, but then our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, sent out worship resources to create a different liturgy for this week, a liturgy she called “A Service of Repentence and Mourning.” And she caused a stir doing this because the resources for this liturgy were not received in pastors’ Inboxes until Thursday by which time most churches have their bulletins printed, as we here at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Albany had ours printed. So I continued to work on the sermon, using these gospel texts that had nothing to say about our national common life that is front and center to us in these days.
But then I watched our President give the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. And if you haven’t watched this from start to finish, I urge you to. It’s preaching. It’s preaching at its finest. And when, on Friday night, I finished listening to his sermon, I realized that I could not finish the sermon I was writing using the gospel readings the lectionary gives us. Instead, I was going to follow Bishop Eaton’s directive and use some of the resources she provided for today. 
In 1 John we read: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.
The preacher in me who has spent all week reading reactions to both the Charleston massacre and the Supreme Court ruling feels irritable in reading that statement. Because if we are children of God, then we need to start acting that way.  I’m sorry to say this, but to be perfectly blunt, a great, great many of our fellow Christians, frankly, do not act as redeemed sinners, claimed by grace alone, as  children of God. Our nation is so polarized, so apparently unable to come to common ground on the toxic cocktail of cultural poisons that gave us the Charleston massacre: race relations, gun control, health care.
Somehow managing to ignore the racist culture in which Dylann Roof was raised, Rick Santorum called the event “an assault on religious liberty.” Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy of Fox News speculated that maybe this was all about “hostility toward Christians” with Doocy stunned that this was labelled a “hate crime.” And a National Rifle Association board member mused that had Clementa Pinckney been packing a piece in the pulpit, fewer would have died.
Of course, we are harshly divided on other issues, as well: climate change, immigration reform, care of the earth’s resources. And while many, many of us are rejoicing today at the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in the United States, others continue to cherry-pick at scripture to as a way to deny the rite and right of marriage to all. Republican presidential hopeful, Bobby Jindal announced that the ruling “will pave the way for an all-out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision."
The fundamentalist Christian, American Family Association put out a statement saying “There is no doubt that this morning’s ruling will imperil religious liberty in America, as individuals of faith who uphold time-honored marriage and choose  not to advocate for same-sex unions will now be viewed as extremists.”
And the LDS-funded National Organization for Marriage, citing MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on the moral importance of disobeying unjust laws, makes its case by saying that “The National Organization for marriage and countless millions of Americans do not accept this ruling. Instead, we will work at every turn to reverse it.”
And Fox News Todd Stearnes tweeted, referencing both the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House and the Supreme Court ruling, “If you think the cultural purge over Southern traditions was egregious—wait until you see what they do to Christians in America.”
And I pause here.
I pause here in order that we remind ourselves: We are Christians in America.
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Enchantment, Evil and Innocent Children

I am always both haunted and horrified by Schubert's setting of the Goethe poem, "Die Erlkonig." If you don't know it, it's more than worth taking a listen to mid-twentieth-century baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's calmly chilling version.

Note how he sings all four voices--the neutral narrator, the frightened son, the confused father and the evil elf king. And the piano's racing horse-hooves convey the mounting terror at the invisible, but inevitable danger.

Read the English translation below the German and then take a listen:

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

"Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?" –
"Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?" –
"Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif."

"Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel' ich mit dir;
Manch' bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand." –

"Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?" –
"Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind." –

"Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein." –

"Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?" –
"Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau. –"

"Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt." –
"Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!" –

Dem Vater grauset's, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh' und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

The English translation:
Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

"My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?"
"Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and tail?"
"My son, it's a wisp of fog."

"You dear child, come, go with me!
Very lovely games I'll play with you;
Some colourful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has some golden robes."

"My father, my father, and don't you hear
What the Elfking quietly promises me?"
"Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind is rustling through withered leaves."

"Do you want to come with me, pretty boy?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters will lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing you to sleep."

"My father, my father, and don't you see there
The Elfking's daughters in the gloomy place?"
"My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey."

"I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you're not willing, then I will use force."
"My father, my father, he's grabbing me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!"

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with trouble and hardship;
In his arms, the child was dead.

Click on the link and take a listen. And then, when you've gotten through that, read the Yeats poem just below, "The Stolen Child." It puts me in  mind of the unsettling Maurice Sendak children's book, Outside Over There. And I wonder, at the Yeats' poem, if the child is happier with the faeries than he is in the world "more full of weeping than he can understand." What do you think?

The Stolen Child

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than he can understand.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

When Being a Wife was More Controversial Than Being a Bishop

When the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton was elected as the Evangelical Church in America’s first female presiding bishop, it made news. After all, women have only been ordained in the Lutheran church since 1970. So it only took forty-three years for the glass ceiling to crack. (And as any Lutheran readers will tell me, that’s not even accurate since the ELCA has only been around for twenty-five years. But still…)

The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton
Anyway, amidst all the news and interviews, an acquaintance shared his opinion with me that though Martin Luther might have been surprised, Luther's wife, the ex-nun, Katherine Von Bora, might not have been. From what we know of Katie—and we know a lot because Luther was a prodigious letter writer—she was a spunky woman who ran the Luther household with a keen head for finances and a brisk managerial style.

But how did Martin end up finding Katie? Here’s that story:

In Luther’s personal letters he long railed against celibacy and spoke of the God-given need for partnership. And by 1523, he had already booted out the practice of the priest receiving both bread and wine during Holy Communion while lay people got only bread.

So he used the same scripturally-driven logic to condemn a celibate priesthood. What good was it for a man to be alone? Or a woman, either? If what was good for the priest was good for the people, then what was good for the people was also good for the priests.

And eventually he began to play matchmaker with skillful efficiency, drawing from an ample dating pool, pairing off monks with sisters as more and more of them left their monasteries and convents. To his friend, George Spalatin, he writes of nine nuns in particular who had escaped from a Cistercian convent in Saxony in April 1523.

Nine apostate nuns, a wretched group, have been brought to me by the honest citizens of Torgau…I feel very sorry for them, but most of all for the many others who are perishing everywhere in their cursed and impure celibacy.

This sex, which is so very weak by itself and which is joined by nature, or rather by God, to the other sex, perishes when so cruelly separated. O tyrants! O cruel parents and kinsmen in Germany! O pope and bishops, who can curse you as you deserve? Who can sufficiently execrate the blindness and madness which caused you to teach and enforce such things! But this is not the place to do it.

You ask me what I shall do with the nuns. First I shall inform their relatives and ask them to take in the girls. If they are unwilling, then I shall have the girls provided for elsewhere…They escaped from the cloister in a miraculous way.
Within a few months, Luther was successful in finding husbands and dispatching the ex-nuns into new lives as married women. Finally, only one was left: Katherine von Bora. Marrying her was a logical next step.

Katherine Von Bora
If logic is what led him into marriage, it was love that sustained it. Nearly all his personal letters are peppered with references to ‘my Katie,’--sometimes ‘my lord Katie.’ His greeting in one letter says: “To my dear wife, Catherine Luther, doctor’s spouse in Wittenberg, keeper of the pig market and gracious wife whom I am bound to serve hand and foot.”

But when Martin’s Katie became pregnant speculation ran rampant. What kind of demon could emerge from the fornication of an ex-nun and an ex-priest, especially an ex-priest known to be a troublemaker and a rabble-rouser? Catherine would push out a wreck of a child--a two-headed monster. A spawn of Satan.

Yet when Katie brought forth the first Luther child, all was intact. Ten fingers, ten toes, two arms, two legs. Only one head. And as if to re-state the point, Katie and Martin had five more children, a minivan’s worth of offspring, each of them equipped with the usual number of appendages.

So there were six Luther kids at play in the fields of the Lord at precisely the same time that the church considered marriage between monks and nuns to be both an offense against doctrine and a mockery of matrimony.

Relationships evolve, roles change, marriage changes. I like to think the Lutheran Church’s First Couple would support a female bishop and all the ways that marriage is evolving. They themselves were, after all, bad-ass rule breakers!