On Taking Care

Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ for you?

Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.


“You don’t look like a nanny,” says the Doctor to Clara.

I am catching up on Doctor Who. We’re with the Eleventh Doctor: manic, boastful, a bright and petulant child making up imaginative games with arbitrary rules; how convenient that this new companion be a nanny. Or, well, not exactly a nanny, because she’s way too pretty and quick-witted and shiny-haired and young to be anything so mundane as just a nanny. She takes care of children whose mother died a year previously; she meant to travel the world, but then the friends she was staying with suffered this loss, and out of the goodness of her heart, she’s stayed on. As a sort of…nanny. Only not.

What does it mean to be a servant today? “Domestic employee” is the official parlance; I know this because, unlike Clara, I am a real live nanny. And this is a puzzling place for me to be.

Let me be clear: I really, really like my job. I’m proud of the work that I do, and I dearly love the family I take care of. Also, my boss cares a lot about employee rights, so they take pretty great care of me as well. I have a deep gratitude for my specific situation.

But when I take the kids out and about, I see some interesting sides of people. For example, the majority of people tend to think I’m the mother of my charges. I assumed that it would be obvious that I’m not—for starters, I’m white, they’re South Asian. But no. On my charitable days, I think, “Wow, isn’t it nice that people are comfortable with the possibility of interracial families.” When I’m feeling bitter, I reflect that we all just assume that brown people serve white people, not the other way around.

What I find working in this job is that I’m in a sort of liminal space. Like Clara, people tell me that I don’t “look like” a nanny, or that I’m not a “typical” nanny; or they ask me what I’m planning on doing next (because this obviously isn’t a career for me). These are not-unkind comments, coming from good people, and in a sense they’re absolutely right. I’m white, and I’m highly educated, and (my financial insecurity notwithstanding) I know how to speak the language of wealth. I learned how to ski as a child. I studied Latin at a prep school. I myself had a nanny growing up. And these things matter. One way to express the divide that I feel is to say: on the playground or in the children’s room at the library, the mothers tend to talk to one another, and the career nannies tend to do the same. Whom do I talk to? With whom do I have more in common?

Which brings me back around to the quote with which I began. When we think of Christian servanthood, we think, as Carmen put it in a Gchat conversation, of “doe-eyed paintings of Jesus washing people’s feet.” We think of Pope Francis, causing a scandal by washing the feet of women and non-Christians. We think of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. Perhaps we think of mission trips to far-flung places, and building schools for bright-eyed children to sing songs in. I’m not sure that we think very hard or very often about what it is like actually to be a servant; to be someone who makes her living by taking care of people’s most basic needs. I know I never used to.

It is difficult to be a poor person in a wealthy church. It is difficult even for me, who is probably not technically poor. It’s not supposed to be difficult, but it really is. It was difficult, when I was searching fruitlessly for work, to sit patiently through sermons on how “we” are all so busy that we don’t have time for contemplation; it remains difficult, when even thrift store clothes shopping feels like an unwarranted luxury, to listen to sermons on how “our” lives are full of material distractions but empty of spiritual fulfillment. It is difficult to make the decision that no, we genuinely can’t afford to pledge this year, and to feel like a freeloader, and to feel guilty when I choose to spend $3 on a cup of tea rather than put it in the collection plate. It is difficult for me to talk about these things. Perhaps they are personal and specific to my situation, or perhaps they are symptomatic of a larger pattern. I suspect the latter, but I do not know.

Before working as a nanny, I worked briefly at Starbucks. I’d worked in coffee shops in college and enjoyed it, but doing it full-time was pretty awful. I remember an exchange with a friend from church, who is ordinarily deeply kind and empathetic. I told him where I worked. His response: “Wow, that must be such a tough job, having to be on your feet and talking to people all day. I could never do that kind of work.” I thought (but did not say): You know what? You really could. If that was what it took to pay the rent, you could do it.

So many of my posts end up feeling like the fragmentary start of a conversation rather than a completed thought, and this one is especially so. What do you think—about what being a servant is, and what it means? About what it can teach us as a church?

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Vigil

I tell people that the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night is my favorite service of the year. This year, a friend invites me to put my money where my mouth is: why don’t I join him for the Easter Vigil with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, the Episcopal monastery a few blocks from my apartment. The service starts at 4:30 am Easter Sunday, but, he tells me, the cool kids start gathering before 4.

I set an alarm, but I am keyed up, and find myself awake a few minutes before it goes off. I crawl out of bed, trying not to wake my husband, slip into last week’s jeans and a thick red sweater. I wonder, sleepily, what I am trying to prove here. Does it even work to do Easter Vigil twice? At what point do I reach liturgical overkill? My friend is a master of the virtue which my father terms “cheerful persistence.” While I am drinking that first, necessary, silent cup of milky Irish Breakfast, my phone rings. I assure him that I’m still coming, am almost out the door.

Heavy socks, sneakers, scarf and mittens: it may be April, but this is still Massachusetts. As I tie my shoes clumsily in the dark, I find myself humming, internally, the chant from a few hours before: Come ye, take light from the light that is never overtaken by night; come glorify the Christ, risen from the dead.

 


 

It is, as promised/threatened, a long service. We start in the emptiest dead end of the night, with a brazier of great leaping flames in the monastery garden. On the other side of the wall, an occasional car is heard rushing down Memorial Drive. We light candles from the Paschal candle, and hold them in our seats, watching the wax dwindle and spill onto our fingers and the cardboard holder, as we meander through scripture. The Creation. The Flood. The Aqedah. Through Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, into Zephaniah’s promise. Our second tapers are burning low when we stand to chant the baptismal covenant, claiming anew what seem to me to be some awfully stark and uncompromising statements about who God is and how the world works. To my delight, the celebrant dips what looks like a paintbrush into water taken from the baptismal font and walks around the sanctuary, flicking it over our heads. The drops hit me, hard, in the forehead, and trickle down into my eyes. I love this about my tradition, that it loves words and also matter: stories and fire and water and song.

Meanwhile, the black circles of stained glass high on the walls have slowly turned to glowing blue; outside, the sun is rising. Finally, finally, it is Easter. The lights come up, the candles on the altar are lit, and we sing and say and sing again “Alleluia,” and ring bells, louder and louder. We are back in the familiar terrain of the Eucharist, and I love this, too, that the impossibly strange can be so familiar, such a comfort. (And yet there’s always something new: this morning my chunk of bread breaks off and falls into the chalice of wine. I look up at the deacon in panicked hilarity. He tells me, kindly, not to worry, “just reach in and fish it out.” I return to my seat and giggle through the ravishing first verse of “Now the Green Blade Riseth.”)

Slowly, the world is returning to normal: normal church time (Sunday morning); normal hymns–familiar tunes, polished phrases, played just a bit too slowly for my poor breath control; and the normal gentle hubbub as the congregation makes its cheerful way outside. But for me, at least, that glimpsed mystery adheres to all things, to the sung dismissal and the sunshine outside and the churchy chit-chat with friends over coffee afterward.

 


 

There is not a useful way to be detached or ironic about Easter. Like many people I know, I often cultivate a dryness, a deprecation, about matters of faith, born of the fear of sentimentality, or of fear that it will turn out not to be real, or that people will think that I’m deluded, or of fear of something else. There are so many shapes fear takes, and always with the result that I disavow my own deepest life. Here, though, there is no place for this fear. I am laughing immoderately, and weeping, and possessed by that rich solemnity of joy, in turns and then all at once. What can I say? Christ is risen. For me, it’s not about believing it; what I believe is that I don’t have to believe it for it to be true. The resurrection is the shape of the world. It just is. And sometimes—as this morning—it is given to me to experience.

 

 

You, too, are the Body of Christ (part two)

So, in my previous post, I wrote about the dynamics at play when a sheltered Catholic (me) decides to attend a non-Catholic worship service.  In this post, I’ll share my reflections on the actual service I attended–a weekday low mass at an Episcopal church.  In general, I would say that the service itself was incredibly similar to a Catholic mass, the language was noticeably formal, and the people I met tried incredibly hard to be welcoming.

I had been thinking about going to a service at this particular church for a long time, and one night while walking back from the farmer’s market, I decided to make the time and just headed in, vegetables and all.  I was struck by how similar the church looked to the chapel at my undergrad–a little spare but beautifully decorated with stained glass windows and a little marble.  There were about 6 or 8 people there and a few more trickled in after the mass started.

One thing that I immediately noticed was the language of the mass.  The structure of liturgy of the Word then liturgy of the Eucharist and the call and response were very familiar–almost identical to a Catholic service.  But the language was so formal.  So many “thees” and “thous” and “speakest” and “hast”–I suddenly understood how very English the Episcopal Church is (or rather, how very Latinized the Roman Catholic Church is).  These language differences also made me think of the recent retranslations of the Roman Missal that caused so much uproar in the Catholic Church.  I, like a lot of Catholics, wasn’t a big fan of them when they first came around, for a number of reasons (some theological, some sentimental).  Though the retranslations intended to solve a number of errors and mistranslations, they have been widely criticized because of their clunky, formal style (“chalice” for “cup” and “enter under my roof” for “receive”, etc).  What is frustrating about these translations is that I work really hard to teach high school students that prayer (and liturgy) is simply a form of communication between God and humans, just like a conversation one would have with a friend.  When they finally believe me (it takes a lot of convincing) and see prayer that way, they inevitably are far less intimidated by prayer and are encouraged to treat their relationship with God like one of close friendship.  So here’s my problem: we don’t use words like “chalice” and “thee” and “hast” in conversation, least of all, conversation with our friends.  So can this kind of formal language create distance between the worshipper and God?  Does this kind of language adequately express how the average Catholic or Episcopalian would choose to converse with God?  I couldn’t help but feel alienated at this mass, like I felt alienated during the first few weeks of the Catholic retranslations.

Things really got interesting after the service.  I gathered my things to go and was greeted near the door by the pastor who celebrated the mass.  I chatted a little bit with him about what brought me there, my job, etc and he invited me downstairs where they were having fellowship, and the other parishioners there echoed the invitation.  I was a little hesitant but genuinely felt welcomed, so I went.

The fellowship downstairs was a lovely expression of Christian hospitality.  There was a simple meal of wine, cheese, crackers, fruit, etc.  Everyone brought something to share and everyone pitched in to set up the table.  We sat down to eat and discuss some Bible passages the pastor printed out to share.  I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was quite sure this had never happened at any Catholic parish I had ever visited.  (Talking with people you don’t know after Mass?  MADNESS.)

The Bible passage was a Psalm and it was wonderful to simply listen to what others thought of the passage.  Most of those present were older, so I was captivated by their listening to where they are on their faith journeys and how the Psalm could speak to them.  The conversation meandered, and eventually, we came onto the topic of the Catholic Church.  A few of those present appeared to be ex-Catholics and bore some pretty serious wounds from their histories with the Catholic Church.  Finally, the question came up as to why non-Catholics are not permitted to take the Eucharist in a Catholic Mass, i.e.: why belief is a prerequisite for partaking.  One woman spoke up and explained, “well, that just goes to show how differently we think about the Eucharist.  Catholics don’t believe in the power of the Eucharist; they think it’s just a symbol.  We think it’s effective and it makes us into the Body of Christ.”

At this point I should mention that I hadn’t been “outed” as Catholic yet.  Rather than serve as a mouthpiece for all things Catholic or violate what might be seen as a safe space to discuss painful experiences with Catholicism, I chose not to jump in and declare my Catholic identity.  However, Catholic educator alarm bells were ringing in my head at the characterization of the Eucharist as a symbol.  And ironically, this argument from effect is exactly what Catholic theology uses to explain precisely why non-Catholics cannot take communion–Catholic eucharistic theology also holds that because the unity among the churches of the Body of Christ does not exist yet, we cannot share the same Eucharist as if we did.  So the woman who spoke up really called Catholic theology to task in an important way, one that I hadn’t considered before: if we really believe the sacrament is not just a symbol, if we take serious its efficacy, can’t it make us into the Body of Christ?  Aren’t we saying that the Eucharist is just a symbol when it is shared only by those who are already united in faith?  Perhaps that is an overly simplified way to think about the effect of sacraments, but I couldn’t help but notice that from this Episcopalian perspective, Catholic theology looks like it doubts the efficacy of the Eucharist.

So I left that evening wondering–what will make us into the Body of Christ?  I don’t have a magic solution to that problem, but more than anything, I am glad that I went to this mass and glad I can continue to discuss theology with my non-Catholic brethren.  Such a rewarding experience is a great reminder for me to step outside the Catholic bubble more often.  It seems to me that sharing in the Eucharist, even with some restrictions, and trading ideas in theology is the best way to effect the Body of Christ here and now.

 

Young People In The Church (TM)

I am a young person in the church. It is great! I love my parish, and my church community is a source of friendship, spiritual sustenance, and purpose. As should surprise no one, I have some thoughts about what being A Young Person In The Church has felt like to me, and what we might do to welcome, incorporate, respect, and learn from other Young People. (Spoiler alert: Stop thinking of us in capital letters.) Some of these ideas come from things my congregation does really well; some of them originate with frustrating or hurtful encounters I’ve had. Some of this will probably be pretty specific to the Episcopal Church, and some of it probably will not be.

(NB: For the purposes of this post, Young People = anyone under 40.)

Please don’t tell us that we’re babies.

I feel like this should be obvious, and yet it keeps happening to me: someone (usually in his or her 40s or 50s) will ask my age, and when they hear it (28), they’ll exclaim, “You’re a baby!” Or I’ll describe a troubling or distressing situation–financial instability or vocational concerns–only to have it met with, “Well, you’re SO YOUNG” (the implicit corollary being that my difficulty in making rent is therefore not a serious problem). Or someone will say in my presence, “Anyone under 40 is just a baby to me.”

People. I am a grown-ass woman. I have grey hairs and wrinkles. I pay taxes, I get drunk legally, I try to live into my wedding vows. When you tell me that I’m a baby, you dismiss my whole life, all my suffering and struggle and hard-earned wisdom. You tell me that my life doesn’t count to you. This would be equally unacceptable if I were a college student, or even a high school student. We all have wisdom to offer. We all have suffering that needs to be acknowledged. We are all very members incorporate in the mystical body of God’s Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of God’s everlasting kingdom. We all count.

Ask us to do stuff.

By which I mean: invite young people into leadership positions; not just as acolytes or youth fellowship groups, but as vestry members, as members of the committees that make the big decisions. When you’re choosing a group to think about what you want your church’s future to look like, to think big, to decide how to allocate your money and how to grow your church, ask young people to be part of making those decisions.

By which I also mean: invite us into areas of church life that don’t just have to do with worship. Ask us to help serve coffee hour, or to be on the Altar Guild, or to volunteer to help serve the homeless, or to bring the Eucharist to sick parishioners. Let us know that we’re needed, and help us feel that the church is ours, too, and we’re not simply filling a pew on someone else’s sufferance. Be our friends. My parish is particularly good at asking people to do stuff, with a fantastic ministry of hospitality and welcome to newcomers, and it’s made such a difference in my life.

Facebook is a red herring.

You guys, I have sat through so. many. sermons. about Facebook. And The World Wide Web. And the perilous allure of Technology. At best, these make me roll my eyes, and at worst, they make me furious. It’s sort of like re-watching the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where they set up Willow as the computer wizard who “surfs the net” using the wonders of dial-up: these episodes just don’t wear well, and I can’t really take them seriously. But any discussion about Young People In The Church must apparently include some reference to Facebook, which makes it hard for me to take any discussion about YPITC seriously.

Technology moves very fast, and it’s hard to keep up with (like, what is Snapchat? Is it or is it not purely for sexting? Discuss.), and I get that it’s scary to have this huge pervasive element that wasn’t so much a part of people’s lives a generation ago. And yet, no matter how fast technology changes, people don’t change. People still need the same things we have always needed: sustenance, shelter, community, God. Our tools evolve, but what we’re trying to do with those tools remains pretty stable. The fact that many young people create communities on the internet does not change the fact that we need community. Focus on that.

Spend some money on us.

Fund youth ministry programs, church summer camps, college chaplaincies. Invest in Christian formation for all ages. Ask that your youth ministers be professionals, and compensate them accordingly, both financially and with respect for their roles and gifts. This article by Frederick Schmidt says it beautifully:

Youth and campus ministry need to be treated as a vocation and destination and not as heavy lifting done by someone young enough to survive a week at camp with a hundred kids. That means paying youth ministers as if they do something critical. That means cultivating an approach to the vocation that makes it possible to continue doing the work as long as they feel called to do it. And it means eliminating structures that suggest that this is something worth doing only as long as you are young, unattached, and willing to eat pizza.

Think of us as people rather than members of a demographic. Treat us as an end rather than a means.

One thing I don’t much like in the article linked to above is that Schmidt opens by citing the (admittedly troubling) decline in Episcopal Church membership and aging of its clergy and congregations, then presents his powerful plea for good youth ministry as a solution to this problem. Personally, I don’t want to be anyone’s solution to a declining church. I don’t want to be welcomed as a Young Person; I’d prefer to be welcomed as a real person. Similarly, youth ministry is important not simply because without it the church might not survive; it’s important because young people–like all people–have pressing spiritual needs, and because every person is infinitely precious in the sight of God, and because it’s our job as Christians to spread the light of Christ in the world.

We talk a lot in the church about seeing the full humanity of all people, and in the end, I think it’s as simple–and as difficult–as that. Young people are not babies. We are not alien masters of technology (I still don’t have a smartphone). We are not the holy grail sought by an aging church. We’re just people.

Mental illness and the Body of Christ

I spent the other day at the cathedral church for my diocese, going through the required training program to become a Eucharistic Visitor. (A Eucharistic Visitor—EV—is someone who brings fellowship and the Eucharist to members of the congregation who can’t make it to church for some reason.) It was…interesting. Some of it was new; some of it was useful; some of it was infuriating. For the most part, I felt a real camaraderie develop among the 16 or so of us trainees, who came from several different area churches. As the day progressed, I was impressed by the strength of faith, theology, empathy, and openness of my fellow trainees.

A large chunk of the training involved witnessing and performing role-played scenarios of the types of visits we might encounter. We were handed slips of paper with a brief description of the visitee’s age, situation in life, and temperament: Man, 79, is recovering from knee replacement surgery at home and is in generally good spirits but lonely and desirous of company. 66-year-old woman is dying of cancer in a hospital bed and has trouble speaking or swallowing. 89-year-old woman has recently moved to an assisted care facility; she is gregarious and invites several friends to participate in communion with her. We split into pairs and took turns playing the visitor and the visited; afterward we’d gather as a group to reflect on our encounters. Emphasis was placed on developing our empathy, both through practicing active listening and through creatively imagining ourselves into the situations we were given.

Great. Good. Until one pair of trainees turned out to have had a scenario involving a 21-year-old woman who was in a psychiatric ward for suicidality. And then—and I’m not sure exactly how to describe this—the atmosphere changed palpably. There was a discussion, punctuated by furrowed brows and wise nods, of how hard and unusual and strange this situation was, how difficult to reach the woman being visited, how glad everyone else was that they hadn’t drawn that slip of paper that would require them to pretend to be a young woman in a psych ward. Perhaps the most concrete example of what I mean is that one of the training leaders said, “Well, I just can’t imagine being 21 years old.”* Someone else immediately chimed in, “Let alone being suicidal!” It felt as though the discussion had abruptly shifted from exploring how to put ourselves imaginatively into someone else’s shoes to a relieved consensus that such empathy was obviously impossible.

This description is far more nuanced than I could have given at the time. In the moment, all I was aware of was the shock of going from feeling warm, welcomed, and safe to the opposite extremes. I could feel myself shaking with anger and struggling not to cry. I excused myself to the bathroom for a few minutes. I glared at my reflection in the mirror, balled and unballed my fists, wiped my eyes, took a breath, and went back out. The conversation had moved on, and no one had noticed that anything was wrong. Our day ended shortly thereafter.

What was wrong, exactly? I’ve spent some time pondering the situation, and here’s what I’ve come up with. We had been invited—directed—to put ourselves into the situations of the people we might be called upon to visit. The leaders reminded us repeatedly that one of the purposes of the exercise was to imagine what it was like for our visitees. But no one wanted to play the young woman in the psych ward. No one wanted to imagine what her life—my life—has been. And instead of acknowledging this reluctance as coming from discomfort, they said, “oh, it’s obviously too hard. It’s impossible, really.” And all these lovely, empathetic, warm, thoughtful people pushed me away, without even realizing that they were doing it.

You know what? I can imagine what it might be like to be 89 and in an assisted living facility. To feel your body change and start to fail you, and to worry that your mind will do the same. To feel that others are beginning to see you as irrelevant, while you know that you have more to offer than ever. To lose the dignity of autonomy. I can imagine what it might be like to live with chronic physical pain, or to lose one’s spouse of many years to death or divorce. I’m sure that what I imagine is different from individual reality; and I don’t think that putting myself into someone else’s shoes gives me any kind of ownership over their situation. But I try to imagine these things, and (even if I don’t always succeed in this) I try to listen to the narratives I hear from others for whom these things are a reality. So why did it feel as though these people were unwilling to do the same for me? Why, when we talk about mental illness in community,** is it always “them,” never “us”?

A suggestion: people are scared. This seems reasonable to me. We don’t want to think about bad things happening to us; we don’t know how we’ll deal with changes that shatter our world. We do nonetheless share a cultural understanding that we might get cancer, however shocking it inevitably is when it happens. We know that our best-case scenario involves growing old and the hardships that come with that. We know that all marriages end, whether by death or divorce. (See [please!] Louis C. K. on the matter.) But it’s terrifying to imagine that the sadness and despair that we all experience at some point could balloon, could devour our lives until we actively seek death. We don’t want that to be part of the human experience. We don’t want to be able to empathize with this. Perhaps on some level we’re afraid that, if we put ourselves into a suicidal person’s shoes, we’ll never be able to take them off.

I have been there, and I understand it. I find that even among the narratives of those who have been hospitalized for depression, there’s a curious desire to distinguish between the ones who are “really” crazy and the ones who just, you know, happen to be there. Between them and us. But there is no them; there’s only us.

Afterward, I wondered why this small incident of alienation had stung so much. It’s not as though something similar doesn’t happen pretty much every time mental illness comes up in pretty much any group I happen to be in. It’s not as though this was in any way unique or drastic in the annals of people alienating one another. What I kept thinking of was 1 Corinthians 12:21: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” This was a Christian context, and I had felt safe as a member of the Body of Christ. Until I didn’t.

*I should note that I appeared to be the youngest person in the room by perhaps 15-20 years.

**”In community” is important. One-on-one, I’ve found people to be remarkably sympathetic and usually eager to share stories of their own encounters with mental illness, either personally or in someone close to them. When I tell one person about my hospitalizations, I actually often have the opposite problem (though I suspect it comes from the same emotional place): they want to assure me that they know exactly how I feel, and they often have trouble listening to me because they’re filling the space with their own stories of depression. This bugs me, but I’ve certainly done precisely the same thing to other people more than I’d care to admit.