Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Looking forward, on the Feast of St. Stephen

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay 'round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel
"Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."
"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine-logs hither
Thou and I shall see him dine
When we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather.
"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, good my page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shall find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."
In his master's step he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

On Christmas Eve, some friends and I gathered to exchange gifts with a couple glasses of wine, as we've done since before any of us could remember. In year's past,s the event has been characterized with awful corny jokes, puns, catty jests, while making fun of the over the top-ness of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas Special. This year, however, we found ourselves at an en passe: we could either talk about the new Star Wars film, or talk about politics. Not wanting to kill the mood, we decided to talk about The Last Jedi only to find that we all had very different, and very passionate opposing takes. We reverted back to something we could all agree on: Donald Trump, Congress, and the Tax "Reform." We talked at length about how much our ambitions and desires have felt like they are hanging in the balance, and about how unfair it all is.

In my last post, I thought about the recent changes in my goals and the state of the world that I live in. In the transition of my goals away from ordination and toward anthropology, I've kept an active realization that, despite anthropology's versatility, there isn't much I can do with a bachelor's. To my surprise, several of my professors have encouraged me to consider and apply for PhD programs after I graduate this fall. Luckily, one of my professors suggested the brilliant blog and now book  The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job by Karen Kelsky which has answered questions I never knew I had about going on in academia. To be honest, it's gotten me excited and scared shitless; and if I've learned anything the past 3 years, that combination is usually a good indicator to keep moving on. In essence, I've found myself in a completely new phase of my life, one where the world is my oyster. On the one hand, my options are almost limitless. On the other, I also find myself looking for a career outside the church, and I have no idea how to go about that.

The biggest challenges at the moment are the "to what ends" I want to pursue a professional degree, and how to even begin writing a Statement of Purpose for grad schools with out knowing exactly what it is I want to do. PhDs are a lot of work too. And, ever since the recession, tenure track jobs are becoming incredibly rare, and if you want to work on your own research (and be funded), being a tenured professor is pretty much mandatory. However, even though I think I'd be a good teacher, I don't want to be an Ivory Tower Anthropologist who did his fieldwork and only publishes (even though I also have a writing career lurking in the back of my mind). And, even though no one says it out loud, the "to what end" of getting a Phd is to have a good career and have economic stability. And this heavily implies that no debt should be taken while in such a program. This poses another challenge. With the Tax Reform coming and potentially effecting PhD students who receive a teaching stipend I am thinking this might not be the best time.

So, in figuring out what my options are, I can, apply to as many Master's and PhD programs as I can and see what happens (generally if you get into a PhD program, you're financially covered), or I can pay for a Master's program out of pocket and discern a PhD when things have calmed down economically (which could take awhile). Both of these options of course imply that I make it into a program somewhere. And, I have to acknowledge that it might not happen. It was my mentor who actually told me to have a Plan B just in case that sadly happens. Applications are due in December of 2018. I have this year to take (and maybe retake) the GREs and get my statements and rec letters ready. Then, I will be in limbo for a good chunk of 2019 as I wouldn't find out where I was accepted until that April and wouldn't attend until that Fall. I imagine in that interim period I would be looking for employment outside of the theatre. My friend's husband said he would be willing to take me on informally at his job in learning how to do participant-observation in user experience and even apply my statistical skills to some of their collected data. Honestly, this is kind of like selling your soul for a paycheck-but those checks are nice and the Bay Area is expensive. Anyway, going into tech is an option. The other option, still in its infant formation, is a move to Portland. Jacob has a chance to start what would probably be the first atelier in Portland. Portland isn't gentrified yet, and is a heck of a lot cheaper, and it mostly meets my urban weather and population requirements of 70 degrees and over 500,000. Jacob would need a book keeper/assistant for the first year, giving me something to do while I figure out what would be next. Going to school up there after I have residency would be an option too. However, this isn't happening any time in the immediate future, but it is an option. As well, as long I keep the cello up and fresh, there's always the gig economy.

Truthfully, I am more scared than excited in regards to the future. This tax change honestly has my stomach in knots. And as much as what I want to do with my life is saturated and motivated by spiritual purposes, I know I have to think both practically and pragmatically as possible in terms of finance and economy. Yet, I think about the journey this year that has gotten me to this predicament. It was at a Taize retreat in St. Louis this last May, where I read Dorothy Day's word about how God will supply you with what you need to live this life when you orientate yourself towards helping and bringing justice to those who need it most. Besides that I'm lazy yet oddly able to accomplish goals successfully, I've learned that I really don't need much. Thankfully, Jacob doesn't either. In fact, both of us are minimalists in nature. Needless to say, those who think religion is a "crutch" need to take a second look at what it means to be religious or spiritual. I know that no matter what, I will be taking one or several leaps of faith into the darkness hoping that ground is still there. It's just I don't know where the jump point is. And I fear the hardest challenge this year will be to let the concerns and "what ifs" go and let myself be led to that jumping point all for something that isn't going to bring me the money or possessions that the status quo say I need. Luckily, I've been watching Jacob do that this year, and he's agnostic. Maybe I should take a page from his portfolio.

Looking back, on Christmas Day

I'm sitting at my Grandmother's kitchen, drinking some black tea and a cinnamon role. Remnants of today's small festivities are in clusters around me; a half eaten pumpkin pie, a soaking roasting pan, a role of wrapping paper, and dishes on the drying rack. And I am exhausted. Not because of the merry-making, it was thankfully low key and almost drama free this year, nor because I woke up at 5 this morning and played two Christmas masses at St. Francis, nor because I finished my last paper and ended the semester only last Tuesday, but because I've been thinking about the future; or perhaps lack thereof. 

This year has seen a couple milestones in my late-blooming early 30s: I've completed my first year in Upper Division classes at San Francisco State University, and Jacob and I have managed to remain a thing for over a year now; dare I say my first real long-term relationship. Both of these have blossomed in unexpected ways through work and compromise. They've brought me to deeper understandings of this world I live in and the people we (try to) make room for in this delicate social fabric we call life. Dare I say I've realized a couple new things about myself along the way: I have passions outside the church and music, when offered a challenging and exciting task I can pull them off with usually top marks; I'm also incredibly lazy and stay up too late in excess. 

But, perhaps the most shocking epiphany is that, at least in this particular point in time, I feel I am not supposed to pursue ordination. I've thought about, even dreamed about, how I would approach that vocation and what my experience can bring to that particular field for all my adult life. My move to San Francisco was some ways supposed to prepare me it in re-establishing myself in a new faith community and being close to the seminary I wanted to attend. However, I've fallen in love with anthropology. And through prayer and conversations, and in my whole experience in San Francisco thus far, I've come to realize that if I learn to orientate myself towards the poor, the marginalized, and those whose name's are despised and erased from social memory, I will find one of my purposes in this life, and that I will ultimately be okay. I still have a passion for engaging and leading in public worship, and the church I attend fulfills those needs, but I feel I can serve God and the world better as a lay person. Let's face it, whether they are awful at administration, theology, liturgy or worship, or just suck at being pastoral, there are plenty of people who should not "wear the cloth." And God knows I don't want to be one.

I'd be lying if I had that my theological and liturgical interests haven't been overridden by anthropological thought and theory. I feel though that anthropology hasn't done a great job at letting people know exactly what they do. Everyone knows what a psychologist, social worker, or sociologist does, yet anthropology is still wrapped up in this mystical shroud of pyramids, skeletal remains, and people in Papua New Guinea. In many ways we are like journalists who tell other stories, but we actually hang out and get to know people in their unique contexts and are challenged with the task of re-telling these stories in a way that is framed analytically, yet honoring the subjective experience of those we get to know. It's too early to say what my theoretical orientation is, but I see myself being oddly influenced by the structuralism in Levi-Strauss, the position of the subject within power from Foucault, and Asad's thoughts on religion and de-colonization. Ask Jacob, this stuff excites me.  

At any rate, I feel anthropology has much to offer in this era. Anthropology recognizes that many of the differences between human groups are deep-seated culturally. One does not have to look too far past their political and religious affiliations to see that the same groups of people experience the same phenomenon of problems yet come to extremely different conclusions and solutions. And what's saddest, at least from a "leftist" perspective, is that we know so very little about the "other" in terms of ethnography and what their essential lifeways are. I think anthropologists, no matter how subjective this is, are tasked with telling those stories in a way which builds common ground and reconciles cultural differences. It's an incredibly tall order, I know.

I'll touch on this more in the next most, especially as it is concerned with the future, but much of this has stemmed from my reflections this past Advent season. Last night at Christmas Eve Eucharist at St. Paul's I was relieved to hear Fr. Tim speak in his sermon about the parallels between first century life in Palestine, and the oppressive and powerful forces that are at work today (and I was equally relieved that he was able to do it tactfully-I've never been a fan of on-the-nose politics in the pulpit). 
This Advent I've grown tired of heaviness the news brings day in and day out. I've grown so tired of people just not caring for the circumstances of the poor and marginalized (read non-white families who've had to endure trans-generation trauma from racism and discrimination, as well as anyone  who doesn't fit into typical norms of heteronormativity, straight or gay, and women who have apparently have no control of who touches them and when no matter what the intention). In Advent, liturgical Christians recall the waiting of the return of Jesus, who first came in humility, to return to set this world straight in its relation with itself. Mary echoes the coming of this day when he hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts...hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek...hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.

The cries of, "come, Lord Jesus" are accompanied by painful "How long, Lord? How long?" I am motivated by my faith to do some serious good work in this world, yet the circumstances we live in are equally disheartening and I am left to hold on and hope for either a miracle, perhaps a Christmas miracle, that will make my tasks easier, and an economy where I can free myself from the student debt I am collecting so I can even attain to attempt at fulfilling theses tasks.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent, “Laetare Sunday”

Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent, “Laetare Sunday”                                1 Samuel 16:1-13

Aaron Conner, Lay Preacher                                                                          Ephesians 5:8-14

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bakersfield CA                                                John 9:1-41

March 26, 2017                                                                                               Psalm 23

the Lord said to Samuel, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Will you pray with me?
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and accepting in your sight, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Before I begin, let me introduce myself briefly to those who I may not have met yet. My name is Aaron.  I attended Grace-now-St. Paul’s for 8 years until I decided to move to San Francisco in the summer of 2015. I am currently studying Anthropology at San Francisco State University while discerning toward ordination. St. Paul’s is my homecoming and it is always a joy to be welcomed back as such. And if you ask my boyfriend Jacob, you will find I still talk about all of you all the time.
            Today on this Forth Sunday of Lent we mark the middle of our Lenten Journey. For several weeks now, the Old Testament readings in the Lectionary have offered us a short genealogy of our faith beginning with the Garden of Eden, to the blessing of Abraham, to the Israelites receiving manna in the desert. The New Testament readings have offered us St. Paul’s letter to the Romans as complimenting this genealogy by highlighting the redemption given to us through Jesus. The Gospel readings have surveyed a few well known highlights of Jesus’ ministry beginning with his temptation in the wilderness, to his purpose for the world to be saved through him as stated to Niccodemus, and his breaking the racial-religious barriers with the Samaritan woman at the well. Today, we experience a shift in themes. You see, in the middle of our solemn fast we can see how close the Cross of Good Friday is, but even more importantly: the empty tomb is now in sight. The Roman Catholic Church, and churches in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of Anglicanism, as well as some Lutheran traditions, recognize this Sunday as special calling it “Laetare Sunday.” Laetare” means “Rejoice” and comes from Latin introit appointed for this Sunday which takes its text from Isaiah 66. I’ll spare you my awful Latin but it reads:
"Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.”

In the middle of Lent, just as the exiled Jews needed God’s consolation, the words of Isaiah tell us to lift up our heads because our God is with us and is about to act. Instead of purple, Laetare Sunday is commemorated with the color rose or violet, purple mixed with white, and is a day where we allowed to relax our fast. Think of it like a half-time break.
            If you will oblige me for a moment, I’d like to place this day in context of the liturgical calendar. In Advent, near the winter solstice, the longest and darkest night, we experience the birth of the Incarnation, the “Word made flesh”, Jesus. It’s no coincidence that 40 days later on February 2nd we commemorate his Presentation in the Temple, also known as Candlemas, also known secularly as Groundhog’s Day, where Simeon declares Jesus as “a light to the gentiles and the glory of Israel.” From this day on, those of us in this hemisphere experience a slow increase of daylight which brings us into this Season of Spring; you may be aware that the word “Lent” comes from the Old English word which refers to Spring and its lengthening days. The Liturgical Calendar revolves completely around Jesus as the “light to the gentiles.” As we approach Easter, we experience an increase in daylight leaving the literal darkness behind. This is reflected in the readings today. The tenderness of the 23rd Psalm, the revelation of the God who sees us as we are in our hearts in David’s anointing, and Jesus healing the young blind man almost beg us to “Come  and see” the empty tomb now in sight. Moreover, it is perfectly fitting that we should hear the words in St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians:
Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light…everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.

That is, we were once in darkness, but through the waters of Baptism and the Grace of God we are now children of light, agents of God’s family through who Jesus shines “as a light to the gentiles.” After having a few weeks to reflect on our nature in relation to our sin, we have a reason for Laetare!
            Laetare prepares us for what is about to come. Next week, the week before Holy Week, the readings return to Lenten themes. This can come across as problematic because we know life is not experienced as binary oppositions. Life is messy. Further, if we take these dichotomies of darkness/ light and death/resurrection at face value then we risk adopting the kind worldview that Christianity in our country has been criticized for; mainly, the kind of worldview that sets “us” against “them.”  But I think the reason these dichotomies are set up in the first place is to help us understand our role in this world. If anything, the focus on sin and repentance in Lent remind us that the darkness in our world and our call to light are not divided by a chasm, but ever entangled in our lived experience. This begs us to explore our Christian identity, as children of light, in a world where light is often rejected. 
            My spiritual director, an Anglican Franciscan monk who is also a Jungian Analyst, has preached often on this. Recently, he preached in being driven out to the desert by the Spirit, Jesus confronted the darkness within his own human nature. Lent offers us the opportunity to do the same: to set aside a time where we can sit with our darkness in repentance in preparation for putting our God-given light to action. Unfortunately, when we expose the darkness, particularly the darkness in today’s power structures, there is a tendency to be as perceived as radical, or as King says, “extremists.” Being perceived as “radical” and “extremists” made King uncomfortable and should make us feel uncomfortable as it labels us as the “other.” We see the unconditional radical-ness of Jesus demonstrated in John’s Gospel, where Jesus challenges the status quo by in healing the young blind man on the Sabbath. Recall that this healing occurred in response to the question of whether this young man’s blindness was due to his sin, or his parents. Jesus was seen as an extremist because he exposed the darkness of the religious/political power system, and he saw the young man not in the category that society has placed him, but as God sees him. Things haven’t changed much. Marginalized people today are still faulted personally for their social status in our society and the status quo always freaks out when we, like Jesus, try shine light onto the power system. For King, being radical is unavoidable. And as Christians we, as children of light, have to be radical for “love” and “justice” in the face of a world in darkness.
            However, it is important to remember God doesn’t see us as society sees us. Our commitment to participating in God’s creation of this world may make us “radical” or “extreme” to the powers that be; but for us, when we remember that our struggle against the darkness is entangled in our daily life, we no longer live as radicals but we live in the reality that God has given us in the Resurrection. Living as children of light starts with you and me. We don’t have to go at this alone; in fact, we can’t go at this alone. We need each other, but we also need to constantly engage with the One who sends us. In Lent, we practice the basic principles of Christian spirituality in prayer and devotional reading.  If you leave with anything today, may it be this: shining into the darkness cannot be done without the constant reliance on God’s word, our shared sacramental life, and prayer. If you haven’t picked up a devotional habit this Lent, it’s never too late. If life just seems so overwhelming and sometimes it seems that your relationship with God is maintained on a weekly basis, that’s OK. But remember, the call to struggle against the darkness, to embrace and raise up those who are oppressed is a day by day choice, and just as Jesus was there for the young blind man in the end, he is here with us now. God loves you and is ready to walk with you, just as he walked with King to Selma, and just as we carry our cross with Jesus to Calvary. Remember this as our cause for rejoicing in these remaining days of Lent.
“Jesus said, I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.