In Defense Of Halloween   Leave a comment

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A still from “Vampyr” (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

This is by no means intended as a scholarly essay on historical Halloween—I’m no expert—but simply an encouragement for Christians to see the good in Halloween.

I’ve known Christians who have a horrible fear of Halloween, or even a hatred of it. These Christians have referred to it as Pagan (a reasonable point, but they say that in a pejorative way), or even Satanic. They want nothing to do with what they regard as evil and anti-Christian.

But: Halloween is a Christian holiday. It’s certainly not only a Christian holiday, but it is very much a Christian holiday. The name itself comes from “All Hallow’s Eve,” referring to the eve of All Saints’ Day (1 November); in ancient Christian tradition, as in the Jewish tradition from which Christianity originated, holy days begin with a vigil at sundown the night before.

All Saints’ Day and its partner All Souls’ Day (2 November), feast days in which we remember great leaders in the church and loved ones we have lost, occur at the time of year in which we note the change from Autumn to Winter, and that seasonal change has long been considered to be a “thin” time, i.e., a time in which the membrane between the physical world we know and the spiritual world diminishes, and traffic between those worlds increases. The gates are open between Heaven and Earth; angels, demons, and otherworldly spirits may be close; the dead are closer still.

Some scholars have opined that Christian Halloween began as its own celebration, but more likely it was adapted from other ancient harvest festivals, most prominently the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain. And that doesn’t mean we should steer clear of it; a great many Christian festivals have some roots in other traditions, including Christmas and Easter.

(It’s important to be aware of cultural appropriation, and ways in which dominant cultures—including later Christianity—steal traditions from the cultures they oppress, but in these ancient Christian traditions it was more the marginalized early Christians trying to adapt to the cultures in which they found themselves trying to survive, and or the cultures that adopted Christianity trying to meld traditions).

The increasing popularity of Dia De Muertos, the Mexican version of All Souls’ Day, has helped, as it is deeply tied to Catholicism. It likewise began as a harvest festival, and focuses on honoring dead ancestors. There are some significant cultural appropriation issues there as non-Latinx Americans adopt these traditions—to the point of creating a Disney/Pixar movie about the holiday—but at least it’s opening people to the spiritual truths contained in this season.

A good way to look at the creation of Halloween after the fashion of Samhain is to consider that both Christians and non-Christians over many centuries were noticing something; they were experiencing things at that time of year that made them consider their mortality, honor their dead, and celebrate life. They were noticing that “thinness” between worlds.

I think Christians have largely forgotten how to notice the mystical, mysterious, and spiritual. And learning how to recognize those things again would help us make peace with mortality. Making peace with death is a key part of every Christian’s responsibility, and so Halloween, along with All Saints and All Souls, is a bit like Ash Wednesday in its memento mori quality.

And so we take part in these rituals that do those things: we remember the Communion of Saints, and our dead loved ones; we dress up as people or types we might want to be, in order to live our short lives to the fullest; we tell stories of ghosts, vampires, and headless horsemen to put a concrete form on the spirits traveling between the worlds around us. We put up cardboard skeletons and devils to laugh in the face of death and damnation.

Are there people who are using the holiday for evil? Maybe, but I suspect very few at most. Recognize that those of non-Christian traditions are honoring the same aspects of life and death that we are.

So Christians, do not fear Halloween. Enjoy it! Dress up; have a party; tell ghost stories; eat, drink, and be merry (responsibly); Visit a cemetery (respectfully). Or if you’re an introvert like me, stay home and watch a scary movie (I plan this year to revisit “Vampyr” [Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932], which is very much about that traffic between worlds).

Please skip the racist and culturally-appropriating costumes; skip the portrayals of mental illness as scary; skip cross-dressing for mere comedy’s sake; skip anything demeaning or insensitive.

By all means, pray: remember saints and loved ones; pray for the safety of your fellow revelers—particularly children; pray for peace with your own death; pray for the ability to see—and make friends with—the spiritual and mysterious around us. Go to church; light a candle. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return; remember that that is a holy thing.

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Posted 25 October 2017 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Uncategorized

Charlottesville   Leave a comment

White friends and family: it’s important for us to recognize that Charlottesville was not an isolated incident, and to notice the disparity in police responses to white and black “protests”.
I’ve heard countless times since November from my friends who are ethnic or religious minorities—as well as my LGBTQIA friends—that these incidents are neither new nor surprising to them, that they are reflections of the bigotry they experience on a daily basis. That the white nationalist/KKK/Neo-Nazi movement has been alive and well for a long time, and simply feels emboldened by 45’s campaign, appointments, and statements to come out of hiding. AND that white supremacy is normalcy in the United States.
Have you seen photos of police on Saturday? They’re not in special gear. There were only a few arrests made—and those after deadly violence. Compare that to Black Lives Matter marches which were met by police in full riot gear with tanks, and at which hundreds of arrests were made.
Just a few months ago the North Carolina House of Representatives—no doubt anticipating incidents like Saturday’s—voted to protect drivers who hit protestors.
We who benefit—wittingly or unwittingly, willingly or unwillingly—from white supremacy need to be doing everything we can to disrupt and dismantle the system that privileges us. That means having difficult conversations in our families, our communities, our churches, and in our own heads; it means standing behind people of color as they lead the marches and give the speeches. It means being willing to be corrected when you make a mistake.
It’s hard work, but it is the work patriotism. It is the work of morality. If you’re a person of faith it is the work of that faith.

Posted 14 August 2017 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Uncategorized

First Profession   1 comment

Dear Family and Friends,

On Saturday 22 July, the Feast of Mary Magdalene, I will make my first Profession of Vows in The Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. The rite of profession will take place during the final Eucharist of BSG’s Summer Convocation at a retreat center in New York State. This is the culmination of my three years of formation in the Community (one as postulant, two as novice) and two years of discernment before that. And of course, it is far more of a beginning than an ending.

Consecrating my life with these vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience is my calling from God, my particular way of following and dedicating my life to Jesus. Though it may be more visible to the world, it is neither better nor more important than your particular calling from God.

Profession is not an ordination, nor a step on the way to ordination, but a completely separate path: I am a friar rather than a priest or deacon, a brother rather than a father, a lay religious rather than clergy. I remain part of the laity in the Church.

I could not have arrived at this step without the support of my wife, my family and friends, and especially my two congregations: Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and St. Thomas in Denver. Your love and friendship have nourished me through my discernment, postulancy, and novitiate, and many of you have modeled these vows for me: you are living them in various ways even without having made them! You are the people through whom God has made me who I am. 

Brother Max Steele, who entered the Community the same day I did, will make his vows with me. Of the five men who entered in 2014, Brother Max and I are the only ones still in the Community; this is fairly typical for religious communities: the formation years are also a time of further discernment, as each postulant/novice tests their vocation to see if God is truly calling them to this life and this community. When a postulant or novice leaves BSG, it is not a failure in any way, but simply a discernment that BSG was a way-station on their journey, rather than a permanent calling.

What will be different about me on 22 July? The most obvious changes will be superficial: a brown scapular will go over my tunic; I will exchange my cincture (rope belt) for one with three knots, representing the three vows; my wooden postulant/novice cross will be replaced by a brass profession cross; and the suffix “n/BSG” after my name will become simply “BSG”

But these changes are (to borrow a phrase from the Catechism) “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual” changes that have been taking place in me over those formation/discernment years, and that will continue as God continues to shape me through the Gregorian Rule and Vows.

I’m not sure exactly what I’ll feel in the moment, but it will no doubt be an emotional time. Most religious mark the anniversaries of their First Profession almost as one would a birthday or wedding anniversary.

I ask your prayers as I prepare for and make these vows, that God will make me ready for them and keep me worthy of them, and that through them I may better serve God and God’s people.

And I hope you all know that I am always more than happy to talk about my vocation to BSG and religious life in general. If you have any questions, please ask!

Love and peace to all of you,

Brother Scott-Michael, n/BSG

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with my two mentors, Br. Ron Fender, BSG, and Br. Karekin Madteos Yarian, BSG, on the day I was clothed a novice in 2015.

Dry Bones? Rotting Flesh? We Can Work Around That.   Leave a comment

The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 2 April 2017

Biblical texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; John 11:1-45

The actor Ray Wise is probably best known for playing “Leland Palmer” in David Lynch’s Surrealist television show Twin Peaks. You may have heard that Twin Peaks is coming back to television next month, with most of the original cast picking up the story 25 years later.

In recent interviews, Ray Wise has told the story of David Lynch taking him out to lunch a couple of years ago and saying, “We’re bringing Twin Peaks back, and we want you to come be in it again.”

Wise replied, “But David, I’m dead! Leland died!”

With a mischievous grin, Lynch said, “We can work around that.”

Today we are beginning the fifth week of Lent, our time of engaging with our mortality; repenting of our sins, individual and corporate; and renewing our life in preparation for the joy and resurrection of Eastertide. And in today’s readings we get two hard-to-believe stories that foreshadow the mystery of Easter.

Sometimes the Prophets seem a bit like Surrealist filmmakers as they retell their visions. Ezekiel gives us here one of the greatest mystical encounters in the Bible, rendered in wonderful poetic language: “The hand of the Lord… set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones… there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” These bones are long dead—they have not seen blood or marrow or life for years, maybe centuries. “He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’” We might add, for clarity, “only”: “O Lord God, only you know whether these bones can live.” But there’s an almost comical subtext here: “You tell me, God! They look pretty dead.”

Erica and I visited the Catacombs in Paris last fall: it’s a series of human-made caverns and tunnels that began in the middle-ages as an underground limestone quarry, that two centuries ago was used as an ossuary—a resting place for the bones of the dead.

So when you visit them today, you walk through chambers with thousands of dissembled skeletons stacked en masse. It’s quite a breathtaking sight, and really a sort of Ash Wednesday experience: someday we, too, will be a pile of bones.

But this is now what comes to my mind when I hear this story: thousands of lifeless, scattered skeletons that could not possibly return to vitality—and yet in this story, they do.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live…

So I prophesied as I had been commanded… And then an astonishing thing happens: the bones assemble themselves into skeletons, and muscles and skin form on them. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, and as he does, the breath enters the bodies of the Dead and they live.

Ezekiel engages our imagination with this outlandish vision, that we might have a sense of God’s power to resurrect the dead.

Ezekiel is speaking here of a spiritual resurrection: the People of Israel are in exile and captivity, and deep despair.  They have let their relationship with God fall into disrepair: “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’”

Or as the Psalmist puts it: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord…

And yet God promises here that they—and we—can return to spiritual life and right relationship with God.

Today’s Gospel reading brings us from the mystical to the miraculous: Jesus, arriving intentionally too late to cure Lazarus’ illness, weeps at his gravesite, and then asks that the stone sealing the tomb be rolled away.

Martha, ever the pragmatic one, warns Jesus that there is a four-day stench of rotting flesh built up. Like the dryness of the bones in the valley, this is a great storytelling detail: in case you weren’t sure: there is no hope of life beyond that stone. Lazarus is unequivocally dead.

But Jesus prays; then he calls to the corpse in the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!

So too, Jesus calls us out of our graves. From the times, the places, the ways in which we find ourselves spiritually dead, God calls us forth individually and communally to new life, to resurrection.

Many years ago I was suffering from depression. And at that time I heard these stories of the Valley of Dry Bones and Lazarus with new ears, finding tremendous resonance in them for the death I felt I was experiencing; the stories gave me hope of a spiritual resurrection.

Whatever depths of pain, grief, loneliness, and despair you may be in, God can raise you into new life. In God’s Kingdom, even death is not an obstacle. Dry bones? Rotting flesh? We can work around that. We can work through that.

Our parish has been experiencing a kind of death and resurrection over the past year-and-a-half as we said goodbye to a beloved rector and look forward with hope to a new one.

And many of us are feeling that our very nation is dying in some ways right now. But there is always hope of resurrection.

As Christians, we are always practicing resurrection. Both in the sense that we practice our faith, which is based in resurrection; and in the sense that we might practice a speech or a musical instrument.

In vowed religious life we have a saying: “Every day we begin again.” We are all continually practicing dying and being resurrected into greater faithfulness to Jesus Christ, until the day Christ comes again to lead us all into the final resurrection, living in unity and peace with all of God’s people.

There’s another common element in these two stories that we often overlook: did you notice how both the bones in the valley and Lazarus return to life? Through the will of God, manifest through the words of a human being.

God doesn’t simply animate the skeletons—as God could no doubt do: God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to them, and to the breath. Remember that to prophesy is to speak for God; the Hebrew word that we translate as “prophet” literally means “spokesperson”.

In the Gospel story it’s important to consider Jesus’ dual nature—fully human, fully divine. It may be the divinity of Jesus that resurrects Lazarus, but it does so through Jesus’ human voice: Lazarus, come out!

And it’s not just Jesus who does this: He commissions the disciples to raise the dead, and we have examples in Scripture of at least Peter and Paul doing so.

All of this means two things: first: God loves and can resurrect you.

And second: as we are disciples, called to follow and emulate Jesus, this points to our own calling to be agents of resurrection. We can help raise the spiritually-dead through God’s love as it is manifest in our words and actions—our care for our beloved siblings—known to us and unknown. We can pray, and prophesy to the Spirit to reanimate our loved ones. Sometimes it is enough simply to see and acknowledge the death they are experiencing. To be present with them, and weep with them, as Jesus did and does.

As with so many other stories in the Bible—the Virgin Birth, the Feeding of the 5000, the Parting of the Red Sea—whether you are a pragmatic Christian who sees these stories as legend and metaphor, or a mystical Christian who sees them as mysterious and real—we can all believe in the truth of these stories, which is that God can do the impossible; God loves us enough to do the impossible; and more often than not it is through us mortal human beings that God will do the impossible!

“Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live… then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

The Church As A Knife   Leave a comment

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Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961)

In Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), a man going through his father’s possessions finds a small bejeweled crucifix; upon closer inspection, he discovers that the cross is actually the casing of a pocketknife. “What an idea!” the man exclaims, presumably in horror at the juxtaposition of faith and violence.

I recently watched the film Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015) about The Boston Globe’s investigation into child molestation in the Roman Catholic Church. The story of what they found is well-known: an intricate system built around sheltering priests—and more importantly, the institution of the Church itself—from public scandal. Bishops, clergy, laypeople, the criminal justice system, and even the parents of abused children all conspired to keep silent while great evil was going on. The Globe’s senior editors even come to acknowledge that they had the facts of the story years earlier, but shied away from challenging the Church. A whole city—and a whole world—was complicit in the hurt inflicted on the vulnerable.

It’s not hard to see the harm the Church Universal has done over the centuries: slavery, racism, genocide, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, child abuse, countless wars, and other corporate sins have all been explicitly or tacitly condoned by The Church, justified by texts from the Bible.

It’s easy and tempting for those of us in The Episcopal Church and other denominations that tend to be progressive in policy and steeped in social justice to wash our hands of those sins and say, “not my church, not my Jesus.” But while the latter may be true, the former is not.

One of the authorized forms of the Confession of Sin in the Holy Eucharist in The Episcopal Church begins:

God of all mercy,
we confess that we have sinned against you,
opposing your will in our lives.
We have denied your goodness in each other,
in ourselves, and in the world you have created.
We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.
(Enriching Our Worship 1, pg 56)

I believe that “the evil done on our behalf” includes not only sins our nation and society do in our name, but sins Christians do in the name of Jesus, whether or not we personally or denominationally endorse them. We have a responsibility to act as a counterpoint to those sins. To, as the Baptizer says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” To bring a loving, credible God to those whom the Church has instead shown an unwelcoming and unwelcome God.

And we have a responsibility to examine and confront the prejudices we harbor in our own hearts but would like to deny or disown. My own racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and capacity for violence are all obstacles in my service to Jesus and my fellow human beings.

My heart has been breaking daily since the election last November, as every day in the transition and inauguration of our authoritarian new government brings more news of rights stripped, protective regulations eliminated, and preposterous fictions presented as truths. This administration values money and power over God’s creation, industry and military over programs that help people.

But worse, there is an increasing devaluation of human life—or at least certain human lives: people in poverty, people with chronic illness or disabilities, racial/ethnic minorities, non-Christians, LGBTQ+ people, women. These are all human beings made in God’s image and beloved of God, and our nation’s current government does not care about them. In our name, the United States Government has denied their belovedness, their human dignity.

But what about the Church? What are we, as followers of Jesus Christ, doing about it?

I can point to dozens, even hundreds of Episcopalian and other Christian friends, along with Jews, Unitarians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics who are marching, organizing, calling legislators, and other great resistance work. Preachers, writers, and speakers who proclaim a gospel of resistance from their (real or virtual) pulpits. Servants who are ministering directly to people in those vulnerable, uncared-for groups. Churches that are declaring themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants and others in danger.

But I also see bishops, clergy, and lay leaders who won’t speak up, won’t do enough. Who say: “The Church should preach the Gospel, not engage in social justice” (as if the two weren’t inextricably linked). Who feel an obligation to make milquetoast statements about race, but can’t bring themselves to say “Black Lives Matter” (or if they do, quickly follow it with “All lives matter” or “Blue lives matter”). Who feel an obligation to acknowledge the Pulse nightclub shooting, but don’t acknowledge that it was specifically an attack on the LGBTQ+ community. Who refrain from making a statement about the election or the administration for fear of upsetting conservative voters in their pews. Who preach a false idol of “unity” that is not true unity, and serves no one but the powerful.

Perhaps they fear losing the pledge checks of wealthy parishioners; perhaps they fear losing their own earthly power. But in these conformist statements, these faith leaders not only fail in their prophetic duty to lead their people to greater discipleship, they fail in their pastoral duty to the vulnerable, marginalized people in their care.

And if we follow their lead, we become complicit in those sins.

Many of us in The Episcopal Church pride ourselves on our inclusivity: officially, all baptized persons—of any ethnicity, gender, gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation—are welcome to all aspects of church life, including ordination and marriage. We pointedly proclaim our slogan, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” and declare “you” to mean “all of you.”

But does it mean anything to our gay and lesbian neighbors? To our black or brown neighbors? To the impoverished families on our doorsteps? Does it mean anything to the women whose ordinations we defer while approving those of their male peers? To the women we ordain but under-employ and underpay? To the transgender people we say we welcome, but keep at arms’ length by using incorrect pronouns and binary gender language? Our policy statements are little good if they are only theoretical.

One of my Gregorian Brothers, Brother Karekin Madteos Yarian, BSG, lives and ministers to the Queer community in San Francisco’s Castro district, a ministry of presence and love to young people living on the streets, drag queens performing in gay bars, and everyone else in that community. Every day Brother K meets people who have either never heard of The Episcopal Church at all, or have no idea that TEC or any other Christian denomination would welcome them. All they know of Christianity is the religion that told them they were inherently disordered, that made their families reject them. Why would they bother to notice or believe “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” on a church sign? Even in a diocese that has been ordaining LGBTQ+ persons and blessing same-sex partnerships for four decades, the Church can fail the people outside its walls.

I attend a mixed (mostly European-American and African-American) parish in Denver full of committed, long-time racial justice activists. And yet in recent conversations on race, we white parishioners have learned that our black siblings have experienced racism from us. Even where we think we have overcome our prejudices, we have far to go.

When—either through our actions or our silence—we let the sins of the Nation and the Church go unchallenged, we are complicit in the injury caused by those sins. If Christians are not preaching—by word and deed—the God of love and the belovedness of every human being, the Church becomes nothing more than a knife disguised as a cross.

Now is the time to remember our love for God and our Neighbor. Now is the time to stand up and say in no uncertain terms, “All people are made in God’s image, and we will not stand by while any of our siblings are cast aside!”

Grieving For A Person Who Was Never Born   Leave a comment

On Christmas morning, my wife Erica took a home pregnancy test which showed a positive result. A few days later her doctor confirmed that result: we were expecting a baby. A very much planned and hoped-for baby.

We had two weeks of great joy and excitement, and we fell deeply in love with the little life growing inside Erica. We imagined spending the rest of our lives with her (while we recognized there was no rationality to the assignment of gender, we both had a strong sense of her as female, so the pronoun stuck despite our initial attempts to avoid it).

We told only three people: each of our mothers, and Erica’s best friend. Our silence was largely because we’ve been taught that one doesn’t announce a pregnancy until at least a heartbeat has been heard, or until the first trimester has passed, because there is a significant risk of miscarriage before those milestones.

Which is exactly what happened. At about 6 weeks of pregnancy, there were some signs that potentially indicated miscarriage. Unfortunately, it took several days of tests and finally an ultrasound to confirm that the pregnancy that had been was no more.

Two weeks of pure joy, one week of agonized uncertainty, and then deep grief.

In time, we will try again, and all medical signs indicate we can hope for another pregnancy—God willing, one brought to full term. But we are mourning the uniqueness of this child—one who will never be replicated. God willing, we will have other children who are happy and healthy and deeply beloved. But they won’t be this child.

Even now, a couple of weeks into our grief, we have found moments of being excited by the possibilities of the next pregnancy—only to find ourselves in tears again for the lost first.

At the births of each of my nieces and nephews, I’ve been struck by the thought that here is a new life—previously non-existent—who is suddenly one of the most important people in my life. A child who will from now on be present at every family gathering, appear in every family picture.

The miscarried baby is something different: a child who never got to appear in those photos or be part of those gatherings, and yet still remains one of the most important people in our lives. We suspect that in she may be ever so. I don’t know if a six week-old fetus has a soul—and I don’t care to wade too deeply in that theological morass. But we had a strong sense of both our own love and God’s love for her. We are grieving for a person who was never born.

We so desperately want to parent her; we so desperately want to hold her in our arms; we must be content that she is in God’s arms.

It’s been difficult to know how to address this publicly: the “rule” that says you don’t tell friends about a pregnancy early on because you don’t want to have to share the bad news if something goes wrong turns out to be not very useful: we have longed for the love, support, and prayers of our family and friends, and yet struggle for the right way, the right time, the right words with which to ask for it in this seemingly-taboo situation. Miscarriage is one of those things our culture doesn’t talk about. The awkwardness mingles with the grief, and silence has been our unfortunate solution.

We have only shared this with a few close family members. And while all have responded with love, one or two have shown as much discomfort as love: perhaps it is discomfort with what is at essence a female reproductive problem; perhaps it’s related to our culture’s fear of death. The bravest and most comforting of those whom we’ve told are the ones who have themselves experienced miscarriage, or the death of a child.

The Episcopal Church has created a series of liturgies—part of its “Enriching Our Worship” series—specifically around pregnancy: Enriching Our Worship 5: Liturgies and Prayers Related to Childbearing, Childbirth, and Loss. Included are prayers and a short Rite for Mourning the Loss of a Pregnancy. We have been grateful for the prayers and the rite, but perhaps even more, we’ve appreciated the introduction to the rite, which acknowledges both the validity of our grief and our culture’s difficulty understanding it:

The loss of a pregnancy is often experienced as the loss of a child. The parents’ grief may be compounded by the sadness of not having seen or held the child to whom they were committed. Since the loss of a pregnancy in our culture and even in the Church is seldom acknowledged as a death, the parents have too often been left to mourn in isolation.

Grief for the loss of an unborn child should be honored. Healing may be facilitated through the ministry of the Church.

We share this sad news so that you may grieve with us, and also in hopes that our society may find a way to talk more openly about the subject.

Written with the help of Erica Hein Pomerenk 

Posted 3 February 2017 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Uncategorized

No Motherless Children   Leave a comment

The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 8 January 2017

Biblical texts: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

Sometimes atheists make the most spiritually resonant art. The great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, an avowed atheist, made a painstakingly-faithful and shockingly reverential cinematic adaptation of The Gospel According To Saint Matthew, with all dialogue straight from the Biblical text. And as his film comes to the scene we’ve just heard, we see John baptizing peasants in the Italian countryside while on the soundtrack, the Blues singer Odetta sings “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.”

As Jesus approaches John, there is a smile of recognition between the two of them. John protests, saying he needs to be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus assures him this is the right way. And once it has been done, God’s voice comes from the heavens, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Words reminiscent of several passages in Isaiah, including the one we heard a few minutes ago.

Today is the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, the day the Church remembers that Jesus, like most of us, was baptized. We have entered, as of Friday (or Thursday evening) the Epiphany: We have passed through Advent’s season of waiting, and the twelve days of Christmastide celebrating the incarnation of Christ in our lives, and now we celebrate Christ’s revelation to the world. Today is one of four days in the year that the Church recognizes as “especially appropriate” for baptizing newcomers to the faith, and though we are not baptizing anyone at St. Thomas this morning, we will renew our Baptismal Covenant together in a few minutes.

Baptism, according to The Episcopal Church’s Catechism (which is in the Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 845), is one of the two great sacraments of the Church—the other being the Eucharist. A sacrament, you’ll recall, is an outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace. The Catechism says, “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” The simple act of pouring a bit of water on a person’s head becomes a sign of God’s welcoming that person into the family.

When I was born, my parents decided not to baptize me as an infant; they wanted to wait until I was old enough to make the choice myself. And that choice came when I was about 13 years old, when the Presbyterian Church in which I grew up held a year-long confirmation class for middle school children, which would culminate in confirmation—full membership in the church—preceded by baptism for any of us who hadn’t been baptized earlier in life.

I was enthusiastically on board with confirmation: I wanted very much to be a full member of the Church, primarily so that I could vote in congregational meetings—I was already very interested in church governance. But I was terrified of baptism, to the point at which I really struggled with the decision to be confirmed.

My fear was entirely rooted in my adolescent vanity. First, I was simply embarrassed: Why hadn’t my parents taken care of this earlier? Why on earth would they have waited for me to make up my own mind when this was clearly something done to unknowing infants? Learning that roughly half the class was in the same boat as me somehow didn’t diminish that embarrassment.

But the more significant reason was my hair. I had thick red hair that required about half a bottle of hair gel every day to control. And for some reason I got a notion in my head that the pastor—who was known for his sense of humor—would, upon putting water on my head, make a joke to the congregation about how much gel was in it.

He was a compassionate person and a good pastor in the midst of a sacrament of the church, so of course he made no such joke. I was baptized, without any fuss apart from my own distraction.

Years later, days before I officially joined the Episcopal Church, I witnessed my first Episcopalian baptism. The whole congregation followed the altar party’s procession back to the font, and we all read or recited the Baptismal Covenant together. The adult baptizands were all dressed in a white alb after baptism and handed a candle: the Light of Christ. I was filled with a deep wish that this could have been my baptism, not the experience that my anxious teenage vanity kept me from appreciating at the time.

But: the wonderful thing in The Episcopal Church—and I think this is part of God’s grace in baptism—is that it didn’t really matter whether I was baptized as an unknowing infant, an unappreciative teenager, or a discerning adult: that baptism at Grace Cathedral was my baptism. As has been every baptism I have experienced since then. At every baptism we attend and participate in, each of us has the opportunity to renew our baptismal vows, our Baptismal Covenant with God. We remind ourselves that we are beloved children of God and part of God’s family. We renew our commitment to be in relationship with God, not simply as individuals, but in community.

We recite—in question-and-answer form—the Apostle’s Creed. And then we promise, with God’s help, to continue in the teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayers of the Church. To resist evil and repent of our sins. To proclaim the Good News. To see and love Christ in the person of our neighbor. To strive for justice, peace, and the dignity of every human being. We say aloud together our shared beliefs about our Triune God, and we recommit to our responsibilities to God’s kingdom and our siblings in it.

Going back to the Pasolini film: Pasolini uses that “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” cue several times in the picture, not just as prelude to the baptism scene. And motherhood was a recurrent theme throughout his work; perhaps its most significant sign in this film is the fact that Pasolini cast his own mother in the role of the Blessed Mother Mary.

I don’t know why he used that song in the baptism scene, but it seems a significant contrast to God’s proclamation moments later: “This is my beloved son.” Jesus is no motherless child.

Nor are any of us motherless children, even if we feel as if we are: I don’t know if Pasolini had any knowledge of the wonderful English mystic Julian of Norwich, but this Gospel message—perhaps particularly in the way Pasolini tells it—makes me think of a key theme in Julian’s work. In the late 14th Century, Julian had a series of powerful visions from God, which she later wrote about in her book Revelations Of Divine Love. Among many other things, God gave her in these visions an understanding of Christ as a mother to us all. She writes: “…Our Saviour is our true mother, in whom we are endlessly born, and out of whom we shall never come to birth…“We know that our mothers bear us and bring us into this world to suffering and to death, and yet our true mother Jesus, he, all love, gives birth to us into joy and to endless life—blessed may he be!”*

I know that not everyone has a good relationship with their parents, and so: if you are someone who has not known a parent’s wholehearted, unconditional love, know that God’s love is that for which you have hoped. This is Julian’s message—and, indeed, the overarching message of the Bible. God loves you as dearly, as abundantly, as a mother should—and more.

In the humility of God’s incarnation comes the deepening humility of the Messiah’s submission to the rite of Baptism, despite the Baptizer being less worthy than the baptized. God welcomes Godself into God’s human family, into the Beloved Community. Jesus, though fully divine, is fully human: he is one of us.

And all this shows God’s love for us: that God would take part in this human life, and in particular today would take part in this rite to which each of us is called in righteousness. That one of the ways God makes the human family holy is by participating, in the flesh, in its holy rituals.

I’m sure there are 13 year-olds who approach baptism with far more grace than I had. And I am equally sure that there are mature adults who approach baptism with as much anxiety and trepidation. But at that font—as at this altar—we are received with the love that a parent has for their beloved children. God gives generously regardless of our ability to appreciate or understand what we receive.

Come to this font and be readopted. Come readopt your siblings. Come to this table and be made one with all of God’s people. Come be welcomed into the arms of Jesus, your loving mother.

 

*Julian of Norwich (2015). Revelations Of Divine Love. (Barry Windeatt, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1395).