Performing the World

I am so glad to be working on this biennial conference once again. We are expecting over 400 attendees, from around the world: performers and performance scholars, educators and youth workers, and others from all sorts of helping professions who use performance as a tool in their development, community building and political organizing work.

Can we perform our way to power?

(I’d say yes!)

The Introduction that Never Happened

As some of you know, I was called to serve as an assistant priest at a church last month. I happily accepted the call, and began planning all the details of my new job and our new life in a new city.

Then, out of the blue, there was trouble. My call was rescinded. The vestry blocked my being hired for reasons I will never know. Was it the funding? Was it me as a candidate and as a person?  I do not know. I will probably never know.

I have been heartbroken ever since. I have grieved everything that I had planned to have: great benefits, a good salary, a new life and ministry in a church I had thought was healthy. A purpose: that I was fully called just like all my classmates who are already well settled into priestly positions at great churches. I continue to grieve the required “cure” for priestly ordination that I have worked so hard to finally get in a year when there have been fewer jobs than there normally would. I have questioned my calling, my skills, my entire personhood. I have questioned whether there is truly a place for someone like me in the church. I am only beginning to come out on the other side as a wiser, though likely more cynical person, who still needs some healing to happen, and who still needs a job.

“These things happen for a reason, you probably dodged a bullet!” Even when it’s true, even when I know that I am a happy, healthy, lucky, privileged-as-all-getout person who is still able to pay rent and afford food despite this, it is still painful. I remember being unemployed as a single, younger adult, and there were times when I was quite desperate. I am not even as close to being as desperate as I was then. Yet, I have been grateful to those who have sat with me in the pain and disappointment, who have not just moved on and said, “you’ll find something better!” I am not yet convinced that I will find anything else, and I have appreciated those who have held that, and who have held me.

Before my call was rescinded, I wrote and sent an introduction of myself to go in the church newsletter. I enjoyed writing it, even thought I was given a short deadline.  Here is the introduction of me that never happened: a call story, and even in this disappointment, a reminder as to why I’m still doing this: a reminder in the words that I myself wrote –  Is it not when we feel most insignificant and unprepared that God will suddenly catch our eye, and call us into service?

One of my favorite memories of having been a kid in church is from when I was 10 years old. I was sitting with my family in the pews one Sunday. At that time, our Catholic Church only allowed boys to be acolytes. Only altar boys could perform various tasks in the Eucharist like ringing the sanctus bells, or handling the bread or wine. On that particular Sunday, the altar boys had failed to show. As we sang the offertory hymn and passed the offering baskets, our priest suddenly made eye contact with me all the way from the altar. He motioned me to come up to him. I looked behind me, in front of me, and to my left and to my right. Who, me? Surely he wasn’t asking for my help? But he was, and I nervously approached the altar. He asked me to help him, and I did. I assisted the priest in setting the table for the Eucharist, handing off the elements, and washing his hands with the lavabo bowl. These were tasks I had never done before, and were tasks I was (technically) not supposed to do. Yet I did them, learning how on the spot. On that day, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of meaning and belonging that I had never felt before at church: I had helped prepare the Eucharist! I felt like I was an important part of the parish, and that I had a new and special way to contribute.  Is it not when we feel most insignificant and unprepared that God will suddenly catch our eye, and call us into service?

I am so excited to begin my ordained ministry by serving here as your associate! It is clear to me that the parish deeply cares for its children and youth, and for their growth and development as Christians. It is also clear that parishioners of all ages are hungry for more organized ministry opportunities for young people and their families.

I believe that children and youth are already full members of the Church. As such, they should be actively involved and engaged in all the different activities of our faith community, including worship, education, service, and fellowship. The enthusiasm and love shown by children and youth can help transform all of us to be better people and Christians: after all, Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel that we are to receive the Kingdom of God as would a little child! We adults need to always grow in our ability to trust and encourage our children and youth. By sharing our sacramental life together, we can help them discover their own sense of meaning and belonging at church, if we faithfully walk with them through the happy and difficult times of life.

I hope you will walk with me this year as we will seek to create more varied and rich experiences in Christian formation and worship for all ages. I look forward to meeting all of you, and to worshipping, learning, and playing together!





Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter,
John 13:31-35

Preached on Sunday, 24 April 2016 at the Church of St. Matthew and St. Timothy.

It is my final semester at Union Theological Seminary, and I am taking a required class called “Religions in the City.” In this class, we are learning about the core teachings and practices of the other major world religions: Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. In addition to reading about each of them, we have also tried a main spiritual practice of each religion: for Judaism, we were to practice Sabbath. For Hinduism, we practiced reciting mantras. For Islam we practiced Salah, or the five daily prayers, and for Buddhism, we practiced Zen Meditation.

Studying these religions, and trying the different spiritual practices of them has led me to wonder: if we were to expose someone from another faith to Christianity for the first time, what would we say is our core teaching? And what practice would we tell them to do? My answer is given by Jesus in our Gospel today: our core teaching is love, and we are to practice love!

John’s Gospel recounts Jesus giving the disciples a new commandment, as he realizes that he is going to die. It is a sweet and poignant moment: Jesus addresses the disciples, this ragtag group of grown men, as “little children.”  This is the final, intimate and intensive conversation that Jesus will get to have with them before he dies, and he wants them to remember his last words. Jesus gets right to the point, there are no parables or puzzles. Jesus gives a new order to love one another. It is both simple enough that a young child could understand, and yet profound enough that a mature believer can struggle with putting it into practice.

Jesus says, “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I realized while working with the Spanish translation of my sermon that, if one were to translate the Spanish literally, it is “love some and others.” I like this – we are not only to love the ones we know – the ones with whom we are comfortable – but we are to also love those who are “other” to us. What makes one a follower of Jesus is therefore not one’s ability to memorize and recite a creed or a Bible passage. Jesus did not say, “they will not know you are my disciples if you believe the right things.” Instead, this commandment is about how we are to live: we are to practice love.

What do we really mean by love? Writer Glennon Doyle Melton describes love in this way: Love is not a feeling. Love is the result of hours and days and years of using your hands and heart and mind to show up in a million different ways for other people. We don’t wait to act until we feel loving — we act so that we will feel loving. You don’t wait for love – you create it.”** I really like her definition.

Jesus gives this new commandment as the inauguration of the new covenant between God and the new community of Jesus’ followers. It is a new way for the disciples and for us to commit to being and acting in the world. Unlike the previous commandments – like the ten commandments, this one does not start with a “Thou shall not.” Instead, it is positive, and it is completely open ended! Can we ever love enough? There is always a need for more love in the world. Jesus does not tell us how this love should be, but to say, “just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.” Two chapters later in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If we follow Jesus as our model for love, his love goes beyond compassion and care: Jesus gives all. There are no limits – love asks for everything. Love asks for every bit of life we have in us.

We could say now: “really, Jesus? That’s a lot to ask.” It can be really hard to love others. It can seem impossible to love others. There are many people out there that seem utterly unlovable. There are those we try to love who just continue to hurt us.

I think Jesus would encourage us to keep practicing. We need to love in ways that will stretch us, yet not exhaust us, or hurt or abuse us. We need to start by practicing love for ourselves first. What have you done to love yourself lately? We have to love ourselves before we are able to love others! If we can love ourselves well, then that love will start to spill over – and we will love others. We need to practice that love, too. We practice it by reaching out and creating love. We practice it by volunteering for ANGELS Basketball, or for the Soup Kitchen. We practice it by singing in the choir – one can really show long through music. We practice it by showing someone grace. We practice it by helping others, and – sometimes – allowing others to help us! Love is a two way street.

As individuals and as a church community, today we can recommit to how we will be and act in the world. How can we use our hands and hearts and minds to find new ways to love? What are the small ways in which we can show up for others? What new risks might we be willing to take, knowing that we may never receive love in return? How can we take a chance on love, while still keeping healthy boundaries and protecting ourselves from undue harm?

As Christians, we are called to live and act so that there IS love in this world.  We are called to keep practicing, so we can get even better at loving. Jesus loved his disciples even though they betrayed him. If we are committed to Jesus, then we are committed to practicing love. Author Karen Armstrong writes that “Religion is not about having to believe or accept certain difficult propositions. Instead, religion is about doing things that change you.”*** By practicing love we show Jesus to others – we show them that we really are his followers. By practicing love, we can bring about change and transformation: in the world, in others, and in each of us.


***Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, Reprint ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) 270.


Why I Changed My Middle Name when I got Married

Oh, the importance of one’s name.

I am marking the date of my official, legal name change. This post is directed at the selected few who care about that. I recently spent some time, effort, and about $160 to change my middle name. Just my middle name. Here’s why.

As  I was preparing to marry my husband, I pondered the name change question. The trend these days amongst my cis-woman friends marrying men is to take the man’s surname, and then move one’s “maiden name” to one’s middle name. Chris, being the delight he is, told me to do exactly what I wanted in terms of keeping or changing my name.

Most other states in the US allow for more name change/combination options than New York. For example, I could not take both of our surnames as one surname without hyphenating them. For some reason, Hanley-Ashley just didn’t look or sound so great to us – it’s the  double “ley” ending, methinks. And both of us would have had to have taken it. New York would have allowed us to create a new surname out of both of our surnames. We tried several options: Hashley, Hanashley, Ansley. Then, for fun, we used an anagram app to see what we could get using all the letters. The best option by far was “Hyenas-Hell-Ya.” Imagine anyone, especially a member of the clergy, with that name?!

Of course, I didn’t HAVE to change my name at all. I’d been Elise Hanley for 32 years, and I was perfectly happy staying with my birth and Equity Card name. I am a Hanley – I really could not be a Hanley. Yet, I liked the name Ashley, and I liked the Biblical notion of acquiring a new name when one is blessed by God to begin a new calling. It finally occurred to me: why not make Ashley my middle name? Chris loved the idea. My middle initial was already A, so I figured it wouldn’t be that complicated a change. After all, New York Law states that “you have the right to adopt any name you wish simply by using that name consistently and without intent to defraud.”

I was not quite correct. For ordination purposes, the Church could not have me as Elise Ashley Hanley unless I changed my name legally. So, I did. I got a small taste of what my trans friends may have gone through, with a whole lot more privilege. I went through the courts to change my name.

So, while I could have moved my maiden name to middle name for free (or for the fee of a marriage license), I had to pay $65 to petition the court to make my husband’s name my middle name. After appearing before the judge, I had to put a legal notice of name change in the Bronx Free Press. That cost us another $95 – good thing we had the money. Overall, it was a fine and smooth process with no implied shame (again, did I mention privilege?) After receiving an affidavit from the newspaper and filing it with the City Clerk today, I am officially and legally Elise Ashley Hanley. So, I am still Elise Hanley, yet also Elise Ashley Hanley. I am also technically Elise Ashley for when people insist on calling us “Mr. and Mrs. Ashley.” The feminist in me is well pleased, while the traditionalist isn’t crying, either.


Advent: The Gift of Doom!?

Advent 1, Year C
Luke 21:25-36

Preached on Sunday, 29 November 2015 at the Church of St. Matthew & St. Timothy

Happy First Sunday of Advent! Today is the beginning of a new church year. And all beginnings are also endings – and today our Gospel seems to focus on an ending, or really, the end.

For Advent, I am leading a book study here at the church on Tuesday evenings. The title of it is, “Advent: The Gift of New Hope!” That sounds nice and cheery and Christmasy, right? It’s the title of the book we are using. In light of recent world events, and in light of today’s readings, I wish I could rename it. I’d like to rename it to, “Advent: The Coming of Doom!” Though I suppose that no one would attend if I called it that.

So, I am joking – somewhat. Yet what if this Christmas – Christmas 2015 – was going to actually going to change our lives? What if it were to rock the world in an unexpected way, either negatively or positively? We talk about how Christmas changed the world 2000 years ago – by Jesus being born, becoming incarnate, and coming to live among us – and we talk about how it “changes the world” each year, but in a sort of soft, figurative way. Christmas is more like an observed memorial of an event that changed the world once. Nothing much seems to change now. So, what if Christmas were to radically change everything? What if we were to wake up on December 25th and find nothing as we knew it? How would we live our everyday lives until then if we knew that Christmas would indeed be the coming of doom? Or – if Christmas were to be the coming of something better than we could ever imagine?

And what are we to make of Jesus telling us in the gospel today of the eschaton, a fancy word for the End Times? And why must we hear this gospel on the First Sunday of Advent? Why must we be disturbed by the idea of doom?

I will always remember the first time I was aware of and scared by the idea of the end of the world facilitated by God.  A friend of mine invited me to go to her youth group on a Friday night. Her church was a Baptist Church out in Queens. That night, they made us watch the movie called A Thief In the Night. This film, which came out in the early 1970s, is all about a young woman named Patty who considers herself a Christian, but who “hasn’t truly accepted Jesus,” and does not heed the warnings from her friends and families to do so. So, she then has a dream in which the Rapture has occurred, and all of her family and friends have disappeared. Patty then realizes that she and all those “left behind” are to face the Great Tribulation and the Antichrist: the end times.  A scary, fascist government system is set up, and they go about trying to chase and capture Patty. In the final scenes of the movie she is running away, being chased by military forces and helicopters, and then – she falls to her death. I was terrified as I watched this, unable to understand how a good and loving God would allow this. And as we were watching, in the final moment of great tension and fear, just as Patty is cornered…. some kids outside the church began throwing rocks at the windows and pounding on the doors of the church building. In complete terror, I jumped out of my seat and began running and screaming, “they’re here to get us! They’re here to get us!” I was full of panic and anxiety.

In Luke’s telling, Jesus is telling of us signs that sound like what we already have going on: we had that red, blood moon this fall, global warming is causing the seas to rise. And there is great distress among our nations. Yet I am not suggesting that we need to panic. I repeat: do not panic! If we read this text carefully, we may instead find a message of encouragement and hope. Really.

Often, when things have been bad for a group of persecuted people, as Jesus’ followers certainly were, they have hoped for a day of reckoning – a day of judgment. A day that will bring about justice for those who have suffered. Jesus’ followers would have been looking for this day. Throughout the Bible, starting at creation, people have looked to God to create order out of chaos, and have maintained an expectation of God bringing about a new age of being that will bring justice.

Therefore, Jesus is not foretelling of an end time that is all about terrifying death and destruction, like what I saw in that movie. Instead, this end time will be about God bringing an end to sin and injustice – ultimately, a very good thing. It will not be a time of terror, but a time for redemption. Just as we begin a new church year and end an old one – the end of time will also be the beginning of something new and better: the coming of God’s Kingdom. And we do not know when it will happen. Jesus doesn’t tell us an exact date. Instead, we are to prepare, and be alert.

This Advent, we prepare for Christmas, but we also prepare for the second coming of Christ into our lives. How can we prepare, besides the usual ways of decorating, baking, buying and wrapping?

Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree – he says to look at the fig trees and all trees, as soon as you see them sprout leaves, you know it is summer. Likewise, if we pay attention, we will know when the Kingdom of God is near. Last weekend, I was in Atlanta, and the fall foliage was amazing: I saw many trees with beautiful red and bright yellow leaves. I was aware of how amazing it is that the trees’ leaves are most beautiful when the leaves are dying – an end time for the trees. And a tree gaining or losing its leaves is a most ordinary thing – yet it can also be amazing and beautiful. Do we notice? Do we notice other such ordinary, everyday things in our lives that may not be as beautiful? Things that actually may be ugly or painful? Jesus tells us to pay attention.

Jesus calls us to “remain alert.” Not in the scary way that the MTA tells us to remain alert, or the way the movie A Thief in the Night tells us to – but to be alert in a prayerful and hopeful way. We are not to let our hearts get weighted down with worry, or drunkenness, or dissipation – that means we shouldn’t be overspending our money or our resources! What if we were to take this seriously and not overspend this Advent?

While we live in a world in which anything can happen, including acts of terror and other pain, we are not to live in panic or anxiety, but we are to live knowing that while the heavens and the earth may pass away, the word of God –  the Promise and the Hope of God – will never pass away.

As Christians, Jesus calls us to not focus solely on the here and now. We must think ahead, and we must think through all things to their completion. If we trust in God, we can trust that God is a God of hope. We know and love Jesus – we follow Jesus – and we wait for Jesus to return. May Advent be a time for us to prepare for Jesus’ return: for the rejoicing of eternal salvation and life through him.  May we actually prepare for the coming of doom, which is really the coming of hope.


What the hell? An extrovert in ministry

When I started studying at a certain Episcopal seminary, one of the immediate things we first year students all did was take an official Myers-Briggs test. While I had taken “online” tests before, this was my first “official” test. Everyone else seemed to already know their “sign,” and they were proud of it. They used it to explain themselves and why there were who and how they are.

My test results came back ESFP – Extroverted, Sensing, Feeling, and Perceiving. I was the only ESFP in the class, and I was one of 2-3 Extroverts – at most. Our teacher and facilitator of the test took one look at my results and said, “What the hell are you doing in seminary?”

It’s apparently a known fact that most people in ordained ministry are Introverts, meaning that when they are done dealing with people all day, they are drained and exhausted, and need alone time to “recharge.” I am the opposite. When I am done dealing with people, I may be physically tired just from working all day, but I want to be around more people! I’ve even been known to get cranky when I’ve been by myself for too long. Even an interaction with a stranger on the street, or a cashier, or a phone call, can get me back on track. While I certainly do not want to constantly go to parties, time alone begins to make me itch for time with people. It also makes me go all FOMO (Fear of Missing Out – what events or parties am I missing? Are my friends doing things without me? etc.)

There was a time in my life when I was shy. After losing my father at a young age, I took to theatre, which became a main source of emotional recovery for me. I believe this strengthened both my Extroverted tendencies, as well as my Feeling tendencies. I also take after my mother, who is an extreme Extrovert, and was often called “Judy Friendly” by family members (both lovingly, and with a note of sarcasm).

Fast forward to now: I am doing my field education internship at a Bilingual parish this year (Spanish/English). My Spanish is not up to par, and while I am learning, it is still difficult for me to have detailed conversations. This has caused me to act “shy” at certain parish events when the majority of the people there are only Spanish speakers. After being an outgoing, extroverted person who is always happy to talk to someone, a new anxiety has gripped me when I am around Spanish speakers. It is so against my nature and tendency to not be outgoing that it is physically painful – I long to talk to people, but fear going blank and losing my words. It has been an interesting experiment: I am sure I will continue to improve in Spanish, and so this situation will hopefully improve, but my silence has taught me a great deal about when and how I speak. Maybe I do talk too much!!