Friday, February 22, 2013

Encounter and Conviction-- Bishop Shaw on Michelle Kosilek

About a month ago, Bishop Tom Shaw of the Episcopal Diocese of Masachusetts wrote a blog post about a recent encounter at the gym.  I just came across it this evening, and was moved to post it here.  The post reflects on the case of Michelle Kosilek, a transgender woman who was convicted of murder in the 1990s and has recently been in the news because of a judge's decision that the state should cover the cost of her medical transition.  As I remarked in the comment I added to Bishop Shaw's post, seeing the steady stream of stories in the paper about Kosilek, and the predictable backlash against her was pretty demoralizing.  A December Boston Globe op ed put it this way: 

“For the judicial system, the case [for MA paying for Kosilek’s surgery] is a no brainer.  For just about everyone else the case can be confusing at a minimum, and downright infuriating at its worst. And some of those most disturbed by the case are often those who, like Kosilek, identify as transgender.”   I have heard people in the community wonder how someone who committed murder could potentially have her medical transition paid for while most law abiding trans people have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket—if they can manage to save up and/or get a loan.

Kosilek may be far from sympathetic, but at the end of the day, I agree with Judge Wolf’s decision.  It is an issue of fairness, of respecting her human dignity-- even if she did not respect that of the wife she murdered years ago.  For the state to make an exception in its commitment to medical coverage for those in its prison system would be, as Jennifer Levi put it, “transgender exceptionalism.”

Bishop Shaw agreed.  But what particularly moves me about his piece is its prayerful reflection on encounter-- how we do and do not engage one another, and how God continually calls us into this process:  

Back at the gym.  This time the conversation was about a transgender person.  My trainer asked me what I thought about the recent controversy over the ruling of the federal court judge who ordered the Massachusetts Department of Correction to pay for the reassignment surgery of a prisoner, Michelle Kosilek, who had previously been known as Robert.  (The ruling has since been put on hold pending an appeal.)  I said that it was my understanding that the prisoner had a gender identity disorder and that it seemed appropriate, as she is a ward of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that the Department of Correction should provide the remedy of surgery.  I personally agreed with the judge.

This is a small gym, so everyone hears every conversation.  Before my trainer could respond, another trainer offered his opinion, which was very different from mine.  My trainer didn’t agree with me either.  Back and forth we went.  It got pretty heated and, of course, no one’s mind was changed.  These are not unkind men.  I couldn’t just dismiss them.  They are my friends and I’ve known them for years. 

The conversation stayed with me for days.  It even became part of my prayer.  Mostly I was mad at myself.  I wished I had been more articulate.  You probably know how it is after a conversation like that.  I kept saying to myself:  “If only I had said this, then they would understand… .”  The more I went over it, though, I got the clear sense that God was shifting my focus from this unconvincing conversation to the deeper place of my own conviction.  God was asking me how I had come to the place where I could be open to securing the rights of a transgender person.

I knew immediately.  It was several years ago in a workshop on transgender issues.  I didn’t really want to be there but a friend had asked me to go.  Intellectually I think I understood why someone should have the right to change their sex, but I was pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea.  Then a transgender woman stood up and told her story.  She was a minister and she spoke of how she had suffered in making her decision and how she had sacrificed her career, friendships and family relationships.  She told of how alone and helpless she often felt because of the discrimination she experienced, and of how hard it was for her to fulfill her vocation. 

“Wow,” I thought to myself as I listened to her poignant story, “all she wants is to practice her call from God.  She isn’t any different from me, from anyone who takes their call seriously.”  Something shifted inside of me, and the Spirit opened me to her dignity as a human being.  It’s almost always different when it’s a personal encounter like that, or when it’s someone you know.  Somehow their dignity is right there in front of you and it speaks to your dignity as a human being.

So ever since then it comes to me at odd times in my prayer:  Who else don’t I know?  Who are all the other people I’ve kept at a distance or let circumstances keep at a distance from me?  Who is God trying to put in front of me and open me to?

M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE

Monday, February 18, 2013

Formation of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage

On Thursday, February 14, the Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies President Gay Jennings announced the composition of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage. Resolution A050, passed at The General Convention of The Episcopal Church in July, 2012, called for “not more than twelve people, consisting of theologians, liturgists, pastors, and educators, to identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage.”  

As the resolution specifies, the group is intended to develop tools for theological reflection and norms for theological discussion as part of a wider relational, contextual process:

·      to consider the following issues in the U.S. and in other countries where The Episcopal Church is located (e.g. parts of Europe, Haiti, the D.R., Venezuela, etc):

1)    changing societal and cultural norms
2)    changing legal structures, including legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships between two people of the same sex

·      to develop tools for theological reflection and norms for theological discussion at a local level

·      to consult with the following constituencies as part of this work:

1)    the Standing Commissions on A) Constitution and Canons and on B) Liturgy and Music “to address the pastoral need for priests to officiate at a civil marriage of a same-sex couple in states that authorize such”
2)    couples in married or committed partnerships, as well as single adults
3)    Anglican Communion and Ecumenical partners

·      to report its progress to the 78th General Convention in 2015

TransEpiscopal supports the work of the task force and is proud that its co-convener Reverend Dr. Cameron Partridge has been nominated to it, along with past IntegrityUSA president the Reverend Canon Susan Russell.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Into the Cloud: Transfiguration Liberation

Episcopal/Anglican Fellowship, Harvard Divinity School 
Monday, February 11, 2013
Transfiguration greetings from inside the cloud.  I say this not simply because of the fog that envelopes us here in Cambridge as rain melts our record snowfall, not only because of the in-between place this diocese has entered in the wake of our bishop’s retirement announcement, or even in honor of the strange possibility that, as this article explains, "a new Archbishop of Canterbury and a new Pope may be enthroned in the same month."  I say this inspired by Luke’s unique observation that all of those present on the transfiguration mount were not only “overshadowed” by a cloud but actually, terrifyingly, “entered into it” (Lk 9:34).  In some way, Luke seems to do more with the Transfiguration, to link the very paschal mystery to it, and to make that mystery accessible to his readers—to all of us.  In the hands of Luke, all of us are delivered into the mysterious liberation that is transfiguration.

This cloud-envelopment is not the only unique gift brought to us by the Year C in our liturgical/lectionary rotation.  Only Luke, among the synoptic witnesses, gives us a window onto the summit conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  All three accounts tell us that Peter, John and James see these towering figures of the Law and the Prophets.  But Luke alone explains that “they appeared in glory” and, most importantly, that “they were speaking of [Jesus’] departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  The term for departure is ξοδον, a word that evokes the Exodus of the Israelites from their Egyptian captivity.  Already the gospel story draws upon Moses’ shining encounter, as our first reading reminds us.  But Luke’s window onto Jesus’ mountaintop discourse gives us more on which to chew.  Jesus was about to embody Exodus.  Think about what that might mean.  Think of what we know about the journey that lay before him:  the downward slope into Jerusalem, the crucifixion, the resurrection and ascension.  The shorthand Luke uses for this, the frame through which he wants us to read it is ξοδον.  It is liberation from oppression. It is the transformation of an individual body—suffering and death followed by resurrection life—as the transformation of a collective body.   Does this relationship of collective to individual embodiment not shift how you might read Jesus’ words of agency? Do you not hear the notion of “accomplishing” this paschal mystery in a different way?  It is not simply a matter of deciding to suffer and to die (which, of course, is not simple in and of itself).  This “accomplishment” is about the exodus of a people, or as Paul puts it in our reading from 2 Corinthians, freedom, which flows out from “the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor 3:18).

Both in written reflection and in iconic depiction, the Christian East has long honored the Metamorphosis (as it is often called, after the term with which Matthew and Mark describe Jesus’ transformation), and has seen in it a deep connection to the mystery of Easter itself. Transfiguration is not only something that happened to Jesus on Mount Tabor, as our unnamed peak is often called.  It is also the effect of resurrection power in our lives here and now, as well as at the end of all things, when that power will lift us up from the grave.  Transfiguration is the transformation “from glory into glory” to which Paul speaks in this breathtaking vision: “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).  This is not an effect reserved for the end.  It is with us now.  It is why, “we do not lose heart” as we carry forward in our ministries (2 Cor 4:1).  The present, pervasive reality of transfiguration allows us to discern the holy in this cloud in which we stand.

The idea that to be transfigured is to be changed, to be transformed, to be metamorphosed first drew me to the theology of transfiguration-- as someone who has transitioned, this spoke powerfully to me.  The complexity of my gender identity also gave me a particular appreciation for its liminal placement in the liturgical year.  But surely I am not alone in my love of the uniquely clear way in which the transfiguration (and more specifically Transfiguration Sunday, placed here, at the threshold of Epiphany and Lent) makes the heart of the gospel-- the good news of God’s transforming, healing, reconciling work -- available to us, a prism through which to see our own lives as in some way part of this larger collection, these stories of salvation history.  This combination of liminality and transformation should prompt us to see not only the obviously-set-apart places, the mountaintop locales, but also the more mundane interstices, the in-between spaces of our lives, as places of transfiguration. 

These thresholds can be temporal, spatial or both.  Perhaps we might look afresh at the context of divinity school and of the university more broadly.  This context is a crucible—as you surely don’t need me to tell you—a space of intensive formation, and which carries to some degree the anxiety of next-steps, both for students and for faculty and staff.   And so I want to invite us all to consider here and now, in this peculiar perch:  What is the ἔξοδον you are about to accomplish, or rather, that God is about to accomplish in you?  How are you being called to embody the paschal mystery in all its incorporation of death and new life?  Stand on this verge today and know that by virtue of your membership in the body of Christ, you too are being transfigured.  You, dear friends, are caught up in the mystery of metamorphosis, you are poised to leap up from the sacramental waters of your baptism. In the least likely spaces of your life, you are being “changed from glory into glory,” invited to grow like the engrafted olive shoot you are into the very heart of the living God.  The death Christ died and the resurrection life through which creation itself was recast—these fundamental tenets of our faith our not mental exercises, but spiritual realities with deeply concrete implications.  As we move toward the dust-filled return of Ash Wednesday and the wilderness territory of Lent, think on this mystery.

Luke’s vision of the Transfiguration frames our entry into Lent and Easter like no other gospel.  To be sure, the placement of this day at the end of the season of Epiphany, as the bookend to Jesus’ baptism (another iconic favorite in Eastern Christianity) works similarly in all three years of our lectionary.  Transfiguration stands as the mandorla, the holy hinge on which the cycles of Incarnation and Pascha swing into one another. But Luke’s version alone gives us a prism through which to read the paschal mystery itself.  Luke alone truly uses Transfiguration as the key for interpreting the cross and the empty tomb.  Luke alone refracts our very body/ies through the lens of Exodus (for an Easter preview, see Luke 24:1-12).  And so again I ask you, what is the ἔξοδον that God is seeking to accomplish in you?  How are you being called to embody the liberation that is the Paschal Mystery?  Amen.