Ember Letters

Quarterly letters about my spiritual journey

Ember Letter, Pentecost 2018: Who Would Jesus Love?

Another semester has come and gone, as has Pentecost, at least in the western church, and so it is time to sit down and reflect on my journey over the past few months. I write this as a spiritual discipline modeled after Ember Letters, but I write it for myself, and anyone who is walking along side me in my journey right now.

Saturday morning, I woke up from a dream where we were singing

If you believe and I believe
And we together pray,
The Holy Spirit must come down
And set God’s people free

What if we really dared to believe that? What do we believe and are willing to pray together about, for our churches, for our denominations, for our communities, and for our countries?

…so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.

Who will dare to believe with me? Who will get together and pray with me?

The previous week had been rough; a tornado in the neighboring towns, another school shooting. On Friday night, we gathered at church for our weekly dinner ministry. We spread the word about it for anyone who was still without power and need a meal or companionship. During dinner we talked about doing a breakfast in the morning. I suggested we start off with a royal wedding watch party. I had heard that Presiding Bishop Curry would be preaching and I was pretty sure that it would be a sermon not to miss.

Saturday morning, about half a dozen of us gathering in the church undercroft. We watched the wedding, and then had breakfast together.

imagine a world where love is the way…
When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down, down by the riverside to study war no more.

Who will dare to believe with me that God could use us to bring about a world where love is the way? Two weeks earlier, I had the opportunity to preach at church. My text was John 15. It was also the text that I wrote my final paper for New Testament in. In the farewell discourse, Jesus tells us,

This is my command: Love each other.

Who will dare to believe with me?

I love intellectual discourse. Comparing and contrasting a post-colonial interpretation of John 15 with Calvin’s interpretation is enjoyable to me. Yet at the same time, I love talking about God’s message to us with my friends on the street of Middletown. I spoke with my spiritual director about the challenge of taking a scholarly paper and making the ideas accessible to these friends and she observed, “You do this, because you love them”.

It is the sort of comment one might let pass with nod. But for me, it struck home. It brought back my memories of that conference on Poetry and Workshop a few years ago where God and I had a serious discussion about my life, and why I never got around to going to seminary and becoming a preacher. God reminded me, not only of that long dormant calling, but also that my whole life, my poetry, my politics, my work, my family, was all about showing God’s love.

The morning after meeting with my spiritual director, I drove to work. I let a woman cross a line of traffic in front of me and looked at her. I thought, for a moment, of that old saying, “What would Jesus do?” Perhaps, we’ve been asking the wrong question. Perhaps the question we need to be asking is, “Who would Jesus love?” Of course the answer to that is pretty clear; everyone. Can we see each person the way Jesus sees them?

Who will dare to believe with me?

I participated in services each day of Holy Week at the Episcopal Church I attend most Sundays and led one of the Holy Week services. After Easter Sunday, I then went to Holy Week at the Orthodox Church I attend most Saturdays. It was liturgical whiplash; Holy Week, Easter, back to Holy Week, and then another Easter.

The Orthodox Holy Week services were very powerful and I talked about them at a liturgical planning meeting at the Episcopal Church. A friend asked, “We’re not going to lose you to the Orthodox Church, are we?”

I don’t know. I feel very strong ties to both churches. A few weeks later, my youngest daughter was received as a catechumen in the Orthodox Church. A retired Episcopal priest who now attends that church said to me, “You know, the same thing happened with me. My daughter became Orthodox before I did.”

Do I dare to believe, if I asked the Father to lead both the Episcopal Church and the Orthodox Church to ordain me? Could I be bi-vocational and bi-denominational? Could I help bring love and reconciliation to two different branches of the Jesus Movement?

Yet at the same time, between the Church History course I took this past semester and my interactions with various ecclesiastical employees, my doubts about the Anglican Communion continue to grow, despite how much I love the Episcopal liturgy and the Presiding Bishop.

This weekend, I will make a pilgrimage to St Tikhon’s Orthodox monastery and seminary. Two weeks later, I will head out to Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Between the past few months and these coming trips, the metaphor of Camino remains crucial and an old hymn comes to mind.

I know not where the road will lead
I follow day by day,
or where it ends: I only know
I walk the King's highway.

Pray for me on my journey as I continue to pray for those around me.

Coming out as a Queer Multivocational Unordained Priest

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ whose journeys are somehow intertwined with mine, the peace of Jesus, the Christ be with you. It is a tradition within parts of the church for postulants to write to their bishops four times a year about their journeys. I am not a postulant and I have no bishops, but still I feel compelled to write.

I am starting my second term as a seminarian at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. I am currently in the online Certificate of Theological Studies program, but God willing will change programs to the lo-res M.Div program in the near future. This term I am taking Introduction to New Testament and Church History II. I am particularly interested in both of these classes in thinking about how our understanding of God and God’s Church changes over time. I have also recently joined a formation group and I’m looking forward growing with members of this group.

The resolutions of the 233rd Convention of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut provided an interesting glimpse into some of these changes in our day as it looks at what it means to be a member of the clergy in good standing, including, “a future with even more novel forms of ordained ministry“.

I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a priest. In my previous ember letter, I wrote about reading Carter Heyward’s book, “A Priest Forever” and finding that her description of an Ontological Priest fits nicely with parts of my journey.

Recently, I participated in the Trinity Institute and this has further shaped some of my thinking. Jose Antonio Vargas talked about what it is like to be undocumented in America. He is here without the necessary papers because of what seems to be broken policies and bureaucracy. It limits what he can do. In light of Heyward’s book and my own journey, I feel like I, and others I’ve met during my journey are Unordained Priests, in a manner not unlike how Vargas is an undocumented America.

Another speaker at Trinity Institute was the Rev. Elizabeth Edman who spoke about queer theory and the idea of disrupting binaries. My eldest daughter is just completing her Master’s Degree and about to start her PhD in gender studies in Japan. We have many interesting discussions about queer theory and while I won’t claim to be any expert, I’m very interested in disrupting binaries. In particularly, there is the queer/heterosexual binary, and there is the clergy/laity binary.

The Episcopal Church in Connecticut uses “Guidelines for Mutuality” that seem to me to encourage this disrupting of binaries by urging participants to avoid either/or thinking. Yet I wonder, how much are we using either/or thinking and maintaining binaries as we think about the roles of priests and laity and who can become a priest? Can we try on (to use another one of the guidelines) new ways of thinking about the priesthood. Here, I return to some of my studies where the early church and the reformation church explored ideas of what the priesthood is.

In part of our journeys we may talk about bi-vocational priests. Yet I wonder if that is at best a half-hearted attempt to disrupt the clergy/laity binary. I have thought of myself as a bi-vocational seminarian as I work full time and attend seminary online. Yet perhaps, we need to recognize that many of us are called to many things in our lives. As the Great Litany says,

That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good

Perhaps we should be talking about being multi-vocational.

So, perhaps this ember letter is coming out as a queer multivocational unordained priest.

I wrote the beginning of this while I was on a silent retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in New York. At matins the light shining on one section of the choir caught my attention, perhaps similarly to how the unconsumed burning bush caught Moses attention. I sought the source and found that it was from sunlight streaming in through a stained glass window over a statute of Mary.

While the image in the stained glass window was most likely the annunciation, it seemed for me at that moment that the image was of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth when they were both pregnant. I stopped to ponder this.

In what ways am I Mary? What will I be giving birth to? In what way am I Elizabeth and who are the Marys in my life? How do we honor this in those around us? Perhaps some of us should hold a baby shower for Mary during the feast of the visitation, where everyone is invited to bring gifts symbolizing the ministries they are struggling to give birth to or nurture.

With this in mind, Bishop Glasspool’s article in The Episcopal New York entitled “Call the Midwife!” caught my attention. It echoed some of the same things I was thinking about.

Another part of my journey includes the Eastern Orthodox Church. I have been trying to make it to vespers Saturday evenings at local Orthodox Church. My youngest daughter has developed a strong interest in the Orthodox Church and is hoping to be baptized into it this year. Likewise, I continue to regularly worship with seminarians from Andover Newton at Yale stirring my childhood Congregational tendencies.

So where does all of this leave me? Perhaps all the more like Mary; a little confused, frightened, unsure, and yet willing and excited about what the miraculous annunciation meant. As who I am changes with whatever is growing inside of me, planted by God, I am seeking out the midwives and relatives. Will you be an Elizabeth, Ann, or Brigid to me? How can I be an Elizabeth, Ann, or Brigid to you?

Ember Letter December 2017: Crossing Boundaries

There is a tradition in parts of Christendom for those on certain spiritual journeys to write quarterly letters about their journey. I’ve taken this up as one of my disciplines with my own unique imprint on it. This includes posting them on my blog and emailing them to various people that have been involved, in one way or another, in my journey recently.

Much of what follows may sound dry, scholarly, or analytical while at the same time only briefly exploring the ideas. I enjoy the analytical, and there just isn’t enough space to go into all that I’ve been thinking about. I know that at times of stress, I can retreat into intellectualizing things, but I don’t think that is a significant factor here. Instead, it is more about how exciting my studies have been.

To put things into the proper context and framework, however, we must remember our starting point. We are called to serve a Loving Creator. We are called to share our Creator’s love with those around us. I continue to do this with ministries through church to the lonely, hungry and elderly. I continue to do this with my friends on the street near where I work.

I also continue to experience God’s love through each of you, as you share excitement about my studies or concern over the health of members of my family. Know that I have felt comforted and loved, through your words and actions. Thank you. Your words and deeds have meant more to me than you realize.

Besides the sheer joy of intellectual pursuits, my studies this fall have had a flavor of courtship in it. Remember those early days of a great earthly relationship, when you spent hours on the phone talking, when you drove great distances to see your new lover, when you constantly wondered what new and exciting things you would discover about your new lover?

This is part of how I am experiencing my studies. God is our lover, whom we can never know well enough, either intellectually or affectively. Our heavenly lover is greater than we can ever understand and that there are always exciting things to discover about God, no matter how learned we might be.

As I mentioned in my last letter, this semester I took Introduction to the Old Testament and News and Religion. They were both very good courses which gave me a lot to think about around ideas of context and identity.

Perhaps the most obvious idea to explore was the historical context of the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s a pretty common thing to think about and we used David M. Carr’s book, An Introduction to the Old Testament as a key text book.

Yet Professor Carr appears to be, like myself and many who have shaped my understanding of scripture so far, a cisgender heterosexual white male of European descent. One of my hopes for the course was a chance to gain new perspectives. The course provided some good opportunities. We read various commentaries that were post-colonial, feminist, queer, African American, indigenous, and so on. I had great discussions with classmates that represented a various sexual orientations and gender identities. We explored masculine, feminine, and queer aspects of God.

We read a commentary on Daniel by Mona West in The Queer Bible Commentary. She spoke about Daniel’s ability as a court eunuch to cross boundaries and compares it queer people‘s abilities throughout the ages to cross boundaries. I wonder about my abilities to cross boundaries on my spiritual journey.

I also have been thinking about what the post-establishment church can learn from post-colonial theory. I suspect that this thinking may lead me to reading an odd collection of Stephanie Spellers, Martin Copenhaver, Roland Allen, Gayatri Spivak, Frantz Fanon, Musa Dube, and who knows whom else.

In the News and Religion course, I explored context from a different perspective. Mark Silk’s book, Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America provided a nice starting point for exploring religious frames in U.S. news coverage. The course involved a fair amount of writing, some of which I shared on my blog. I hope that it has improved my writing and to keep up aspects of that writing on my blog.

All of this leads to questions of my own identity. I now feel comfortable identifying as a seminarian, even though I am an online seminarian who is also working full time supporting a family. I don’t get to hang out with other seminarians as much as I would like, and even when I do, I am aware of how different my experiences are.

In one discussion with a fellow seminarian, I spoke about being a bi-vocational seminarian. Various people talk about the need for bi-vocational priests, and I wonder how well we can prepare people to become bi-vocational priests if we don’t embrace the idea of bi-vocational seminarians. There is something about crossing boundaries in this.

Likewise, I have spent time pondering how to respond when someone calls me a priest. I get that a fair amount. I don’t want people to think that I am currently ordained, but in most cases it doesn’t make sense to get into details about ordination or the process. One friend recommended I read Carter Heyward’s A Priest Forever. With all my reading for my classes, I’ve only gotten a chance to read a small section of it, where she talks about the days right before her ordination and discussions of being an “ontological priest”. There is something here I am exploring as well, something important for many of my friends who are ontological priests that have been damaged or rejected by the process. There is something here about crossing boundaries as well.

This leads me to another question about my own identity. I was baptized, brought up, and confirmed as a Congregationalist. In college, I was received into the Episcopal Church which has been my denominational home for decades. This past year, I have been spending time with folks from Andover Newton at Yale. I had an opportunity to travel with a couple seminarians and a dean up to a UCC church in Massachusetts where the dean was preaching. It was a truly wonderful trip up and back, with the four of us talking non-stop the whole time.

As an advent discipline, I’ve been attending Great Vespers at a local Orthodox church. I also went to a concert at another Orthodox church sung by seminarians from St. Tikhon’s seminary. My wife and I had a wonderful time talking with the seminarians after the concert.

These ecumenical explorations have been important to me as I try to find the communities I am called to.

It leads me back to important metaphors about the journey, about being a peregrino, a pilgrim. It is a wonderful journey and I am thankful to each of you who are walking along side me. I look forward to the vistas on the next leg of this journey.

In Christ,
Aldon

Ember Letter - September 2017

To those who pray for me and those who offer me guidance and encouragement during this current phase of my journey, peace and love in our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is a tradition in parts of the Christian church for those seeking new ministries to write quarterly letters to those offering support and guidance, sometimes in formalized Ember Letters. It is within a broad interpretation of this tradition that I write this.

I will start with a comment from my previous letter, where I mentioned a friend who works for a local divinity school telling me that she did not believe I would be happy until I started seminary. I reached out to find a school that would fit my particular needs, especially around being able to work full-time and support my family while at the same time attending classes.

Church Divinity School of the Pacific accepted me into their online Certificate of Theological Studies program. The certificate requires eight elective courses and is, in a sense, a seminary postulancy. I am taking these courses as I seek a clearer sense of what God is calling me to, and whether I will continue on to an M.Div, and MTS, and MAR, or some other degree.

One of the things that I am excited about is CDSP’s participation in the Graduate Theological Union and the ability to take courses at various seminaries in the Bay area. One of the courses that caught my attention was News and Religion, offered by the Religious Freedom Center which is part of the Newseum in Washington, DC. I have applied and been accepted into their program as well.

So, this fall, I am taking News and Religion and Introduction to the Old Testament. I feel greatly blessed to have these opportunities and am enjoying myself greatly as I struggle to balance work, life, studies, church activities, and civic responsibilities.

During a recent mid-day Eucharist service, our discussion veered into what I was reading for seminary. One of the books on my list which is having a big impact on my thinking is “Radical Welcome” by the Rev. Stephanie Spellers. How do we radically welcome people into the Jesus Movement including at the diocesan level as well as the parish level? How do we radically welcome those called to various ministries?

I continue to work with the region leadership team in the South Central Region and spend a lot of time thinking about how we welcome people to activities of the region. As part of this, we are recognizing that not everyone has a specific parish that they associate with. I feel strong ties to a couple parishes. Others feel ties to no particular parish. What language do we use to welcome people with varying relationships to different churches? Does it welcome all people? At our next gathering, and we have been using the word gathering instead of convocation, since gathering feels more welcoming, will include an “unconference” which is another way to welcome everyone so that all may be heard.

As I discussed the ideas from Radical Welcome during mid-day Eucharist, a friend made a comment that my seminary reading list was not for me, but it was for all of us. It was a very powerful comment that I have been thinking a lot about. It seems as if we spend too much time thinking about where a process might be leading. We spend too much time preparing people for what they might be doing in three or five years, and not enough time on what they are doing right now.

Seminary is a wonderful experience for me and hopefully will shape who I am becoming, but it needs to be a wonderful experience through me to those around me right now as well.

This relates back to the underlying themes I’ve written about in the past. I continue to seek, using the language from a college experience, to live each moment more fully and more lovingly than the previous. I continue to seek, using the language of Brother Lawrence, to do all things for the love of God as I practice the presence of God. I continue to ask of God, in the language of St. Teresa of Avila, “God, What do you want of me?”

I continue to be reassured by the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “God alone is enough” and the words of St. Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing shall be well.”

Over the past few months, I have continued to lead a service at a local nursing home and talk with some of the folks there. I continue to work with the dinner ministry, and I continue to talk with my friends on the street.

In addition, during the time of transition at Grace and St. Peter’s, I have had a few opportunities to preach, both on Sunday mornings as well as the opportunity to deliver a homily at the memorial service for the daughter of a friend. I have also been assisting with selecting hymns for Sunday services and helping with services in any other ways that I can. These experiences, too, have been a blessing to me, and hopefully to those around me.

I thank each of you for your ongoing prayers and your words of guidance and encouragement. I continue to pray for each of you as well.

All glory to God,
Aldon

Open Ember Letter, Pentecost 2017: Keep the Sabbath Holy, Trust the Process, Trust the Camino, Rebuild My Church

Keep the Sabbath Holy, Trust the Process, Trust the Camino, Rebuild My Church

There is a practice in the Christian tradition of seekers writing quarterly letters to their superiors about what has gone on in their journeys over the past few months. Writing such Ember Letters seems like a valuable practice and I have adopted it for my own journey. However, the events of the past few months have left me uncertain about whom to address this letter, so this time, I am posting it as an open letter, online, to whomever is called to read it and walk alongside me during this part of my journey, whether it be as guide, superior, or fellow seeker.

During the past few months, the priest in my local parish accepted a calling at a parish far away. A bishop in my local diocese made it fairly clear that they did not see a space for me to live into what I believe God is calling me to, within the local diocese. SoI have been thinking much more about what it means to be a pilgrim, a peregrino.

I love my local parish and my local diocese. They feel like the starting point of my current Camino, but that perhaps it is time to move on, to approach them like a beloved albergues on the camino, perhaps as the St. Jean Pied De Port of my current camino; a starting point, not a destination.

For the time being, I continue to worship at my local parish. I continue to be involved with my local diocese, but the journey has begun in earnest. My local parish, my local diocese has become just one more albergue on my Camino.

There are various recommendations offered to seekers along the way, Keep the Sabbath Holy, Trust the Process, Trust the Camino, and Rebuild my church. Each is valuable, yet each has a danger of being taken too literally.

I have been seeking to Keep the Sabbath Holy. A Facebook friend of mine has recently been on a kick about the importance of celebrating the Sabbath on Saturday, and of specific things that need to be done. As I read this, I keep coming back to Jesus saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” I am seeking to live into enjoying the loving gift of the Sabbath. A chance to rest knowing that Love who made us, showed us some of that love by inviting us to rest in Love.

I am finding this helpful as I think about Trusting the Process. Many of my friends talk about this in terms of the process of the organized, established church for selecting and forming those that the church will allow to celebrate sacraments. Many of these same people talk about how deeply flawed that process is and of people that have been severely wounded by this process. I now count myself among those with such wounds, and I am struggling to find how to Trust the Process. It now seems like this wounding by the process is an important part of the Process that Love has for me. It is part of what is shaping the next stage of my Camino.

I have known, since the start of my current stage of my Camino, that there is no way that I could complete the Camino on my own. Love must prepare the way. Love must lead me. I had hoped that my local diocese might help me find my current path on my Camino, but now, as I tend the wounds from the process, words from The Cloud of Unknowing come to me, and it seems that I must put even my local diocese below the cloud of forgetting.

In many ways, the real starting point of this current phase of my Camino was the first Bi-Annual Poetry Conference at Yale Divinity School. I had a deep experience of Love speaking to me of how Love is calling me to show Love to those around me. It set me up for me the past two years of struggling with the process.

During this time, I have read and thought and lived more as a pilgrim, a peregrino. I have met fellow travelers along the way. Recently, there was the second Bi-Annual Poetry Conference. It was another wonderful experience, but one of the most important parts for me was not at the conference itself, but talking with a friend at the Divinity School who made a comment that perhaps is my most importance guidance for the next part of this stage.

She noted that part of how you know your calling is that it isn’t something that goes away when you are rejected. She said she did not believe I would be happy until I started divinity school and even though I may not yet know where my Camino is leading, I need to start divinity school as soon as possible, if only as an Ignatian discipline. It was one of those moments when I knew that I had heard some of the Truth that Love has for me.

So, I am embracing these words and have started looking at divinity schools. There are many complications in my Camino. I don’t have a lot of money to spend on it. I need to continue to support my family as I walk my Camino. I don’t even have my Bachelor’s degree. Love must prepare the way. Love must lead me.

Over the past few weeks, I have reached out to find a divinity school where I might study in the fall. One particular school seems especially promising, and I am in the process of putting together my application for their Fall Term. The deadline is July 1st. There are some courses there that I am really interested in, and God willing, I will start classes in the fall.

A local bishop suggested that I explore religious orders along the lines of contemporary Third Orders. They had suggested a Franciscan Order. I am quite draw to certain Franciscan practices. I am also quite draw to certain Benedictine practices and am exploring other ancient orthodox and catholic practices, perhaps from the Eastern Orthodox or from the Celtic Church. I am not yet sure where this will lead. It feels like something I need to keep exploring, but it is not yet time to pursue this, nor at all clear what aspects would make sense pursuing.

In all of this, I find an important possible future stage in my Camino. Joining with St. Francis to rebuild the church, not just San Damiano, or my current local parish or diocese. Perhaps there is something about helping rebuild the church, a post-establishment church. Yet I have much to do and learn before I can help much with that.

At the poetry conference, I picked up Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer. I am reading about a Baptist poet’s trip to prayer and Eastern Orthodoxy. I am finding it very meaningful. Perhaps it provides the best post script to this letter.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

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