revelation in clay

This is a newsletter message sent to my congregation in February 2020. I came across it today and, for some reason, decided to post it here as a reflection.

Beloved Community,

Brother, Give Us a Word – Revelation, by Br. Geoffrey Tristam, SSJE

“God creates with love and tenderness and in God’s image. The imprint of God’s very hand – the divine potter – is on everything he created. This intimacy between creator and created is very important, because the created world – the trees and flowers and birds, the sunshine – even the snow! – have the power to reveal God to us.”

When I was in college – I can’t remember if it was my first or second year – I took a pottery course.  Although longer than 40 years ago, I still remember so much about it.   The art building was in an old barn on the beautiful, hilly campus in the Berkshires, surrounded by wonderful expressions of God’s grace in creation.  I remember walking the paths from my dorm to the barn.  I feel the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet.  I see the structure – a traditional New England barn, wooden and red, with large doors that were inviting me to enter. I feel the warmth of the space on the chilly days and the warm welcoming feel of the hard wood interior that did not feel at all cold or harsh.  I see the warm lights of the space beckoning me back after dusk for some time of comforting quiet.

The feel of the clay is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.  At first solid- hard even- it gradually becomes more pliable as it is worked with a bit of water.  It has a smell, too, which I realized many years later while visiting family in northeast Texas is of the earth.  And the messy process of molding and shaping, of sometimes pounding the clay down to begin all over again, is one that I found deeply meditative.  More than a few times since those days I’ve thought working with clay is something I might like to do more of, though I’ve yet to make the time to do it.

Reading Br. Geoffrey’s words this week brought all of these memories flooding back.  With the wisdom of hindsight and of many more years, I realize that this one course did more for me than satisfy a requirement for an elective. It showed me something of the beauty and power of creation in hands that are not divine.  It makes more grateful each and every day for the divine potter, who reveals so much more than a teenage girl’s somewhat clumsy attempts to create something beautiful.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Responding to Oliver’s question

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

That question, the last two lines of Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”, is one of the best questions ever asked. It is a question that both compels and defies an answer. How can anyone of us know with certainty that what we plan to do in one moment or one period of time will be what we plan to do with our whole life? Sure, there are those things – marry, have children, travel, go to seminary, buy a beach house, etc. – that are plans we can make and then achieve. There are those things, sometimes even the marrying, having children, traveling, going to seminary, buying a beach house, etc., that aren’t actually plans made in advance but more responses to opportunities that present themselves.

What strikes me when I hear Oliver’s question and think about the kinds of plans we make is that often our responses do not answer the bigger question, the question Oliver seems to be asking in this poem: How do you plan to live into the fullness of who you were created to be? Or, asked another way: How do you envision living as your best self and reflection of the image of God within you?

No matter how we frame the question, no matter the specific language we use, the question essentially is one of discernment, a.k.a. listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to your life. One of the best ways I know to do that is to take some time – some planned, intentional time – to do some listening. For many of us, summer is a good time to do that because the rhythms of our daily lives change in ways that offer space and time. I encourage you to try to avoid filling all the “empty” space in the calendar with activity. Instead, redefine this time to be “Spirit’s” time or “listening” time or sabbath or retreat time or whatever works to remind you that Oliver’s question is an important one, important on more levels and in more ways than I can articulate in this message.

I’ve got some of this kind of time planned this summer. I’ll be at Cross Roads Camp the week of July 10th. I’ll be chaplain for the first week of summer camp, which is a gift of spiritual renewal and time to listen, as well as fun and worship with the campers and staff. I’ll be away from August 16th to September 6th, which is both some vacation with Katie and then with Ron, Kevin, and Alex, and time on a mountainside in Golden, Colorado to pray and write, which is one of the ways I listen for the voice of the Spirit. I’ll also spend some time thinking about my sabbatical, which is tentatively scheduled for September thru November, 2024.

My hope and prayer for you is that you hear this question and find some time to respond in the ways that nurture you, body and soul.

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

About the table…

The context: May 11th – the troubling election of a Bishop-coadjutor in the Episcopal Diocese of Florida; May 14th – hate crime/mass shooting in a grocery store in Buffalo, NY; May 20th – Senator Pelosi denied Communion because of her pro-choice stance; May 24th – mass shooting in an elementary school in Uvalde, TX; and one grieving priest/pastor/preacher/human.

I am, like so many people, exhausted. Finding a way to understand why we choose to hurt and maim and kill each other as we do is work that feels well beyond what I am capable of doing. And yet, I continue to try. I continue to try because I know that my innate Easter hope, which colors my view of the world, exists even when I have a hard time touching it. I continue to try because of my faith in God and my trust in the promises of Easter. And yet, like so many people, I am exhausted.

Though not a believer in a puppeteer God, i.e. the finder of keys and manipulator of all our actions, I spent a lot of time this morning talking with my spiritual director about why God doesn’t just give us the divine kick in the ass we seem to need so that we stop the hurting and the maiming and the killing and all the other things we do to each other that are absolutely, unequivocally contrary to the commandment to love one another as we have been, are, and will always be loved.

The other day, I happened upon Diana Butler Bass’ sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, a day in which we hear the John’s version of the story about Thomas needing to touch Jesus’ wounds before he can believe in the resurrection. (I found it on her podcast, “The Cottage.”) It’s probably fair to say that most preachers focus on Thomas, either to assure us that the doubt we might feel is not unique to us or to admonish us to get in line like those who believe sight unseen, or maybe it’s both. But Bass doesn’t do this. The sermon is titled, “Tomb to Table,” and in it she explores place and relationship with God.

Bass questions whether our focus on Good Friday and the cross is the lens through which we should view Easter and the resurrection. She points out that the narrative arc of the days leading up to the empty tomb begin at a table, with Jesus sharing a meal with his friends. She repeatedly summarizes the movement of the story from Maundy Thursday to Easter evening when Jesus appears to Thomas and the others as “table, trial, cross, tomb, table.” The Easter story starts and ends with the table. Though there are figurative trials and crosses to bear along the way, Jesus never returns to the tomb. He never takes his friends back to place of suffering and death. It is done. Jesus meets his friends where there is life. Jesus meets his friends where there is hope. Jesus meets his friends at the table.

So now I’m thinking about “tables.” For example, there’s the water table. The water table is life-giving. We are made of water and it is the element most necessary to life. For Christians, water is the necessary physical element of baptism, i.e. new life in Christ. There’s the dinner table. The dinner table is life-sustaining. The foods we eat have a clear and direct impact on our health and well-being, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. There’s the Thanksgiving table. The Thanksgiving table often is fraught. And yet it’s a choice we make to come together in and with whatever relationships we have because we know it means more than just what it is: an occasion to overeat foods not regularly on the table with people we may not spend a whole lot of time with during the rest of the year, sometimes because relationships are downright hard. It’s a day and a way of celebrating life and blessings and all manner of good things, even when life and blessings and all manner of good things are not immediately and apparently “good.” And, for some of us, there’s the Communion Table, which is and does all of the above and more.

Beyond what ever happens in the holy mystery of the Eucharistic Celebration, there is the shared journey to the Table, to deeper relationship with God through fellowship with Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a place where all are welcome to come as they are with others who do the same because the grace and love of God supercedes all else. There is nothing we cannot bring with us, no fear, no anxiety, no exhaustion. It is a place to receive solace and strength, pardon and renewal, and to be reminded that none of us is alone in this life, even when we feel most lonely and afraid, most worn down and exhausted. It is a place to be both fully who we are and who we strive to be.

The Table is a place to meet Jesus and to be reminded that the hurting and the maiming and the killing will not have the last word. It is a place of hope. It is a place of grace. It is a place of Love. It is God’s Table, to which all are invited and where all are welcome.

The Table is a place I go to be reminded that I am exhausted because I care, because I trust, because I choose to show up, because I know I am loved and want to love others well. It is a place where even exhaustion and grief can be transformed. It is a place I go to find the strength and the courage and whatever else I need to be able to act, to do my part to realize God’s dream for God’s world.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Untitled, because Covid

Just a few moments ago, when I logged on to upload my Easter sermons, I came across this post in my drafts. I began the post last April, and had a working title of “Injustices grow like this virus”. For some reason I don’t recall, I didn’t finish it then. I’m guessing from this incomplete sentence : “As I read or hear about the assaults on people who either are or are presumed to be Chinese” that I wrote in response to one of the stories I heard about Asian people being targeted or something then-President Trump said about the “Chinese virus.” I’ll never know. I’m publishing it today because some of the underlying message seems to hold true still, though where I find myself in terms of any kind of conclusion is a bit different. If you read on, you’ll see where I land today and perhaps it will resonate with you.

April 16, 2020: This morning as I was online praying with my parish and others, it occurred to me that one of the worst things about the corona virus is that it is more than just a breeding ground for Covid-19. As if that disease were not bad enough, this virus has shown itself to be wily, with the capacity to ensnare all manner of things in its path.

It has built into its DNA its own injustices. People fall ill. Many suffer horribly. Many die. This happens alone for so many because it is no longer safe or allowed to attend to a loved one in their illness or as they breathe their last. Relationships end with more loss than any one person should be expected to bear.

Even the still healthy struggle. Health care workers must choose between the patients they care for and their own families. Others have lost or will lose jobs and needed income. Basic necessities like food and toilet paper are scarce, if one can even get to the store. Children are stuck at home without the time with other children they need to grow and thrive.

This dastardly virus causes havoc in everyday life with the wherewithal to continue to do so for God knows how long, seemingly always at least a step ahead of the brilliant minds that study it and the courageous minds that enact the numerous and often changing responses to it. There is no justice in this. No one deserves it.

All of that is bad enough. But it doesn’t stop there.

This virus has a seemingly unmatched in our lifetime ability to sow fear and anxiety across the globe, dismissive of the boundaries of geography and resource that often protect some of us from having to live in these conditions, with these choices. That kind of privilege (which I admittedly hold because of all that accidents of birth and subsequent opportunities that make me who I am today) coupled with all of the fear and anxiety this virus feeds breeds more injustice even as we lament the sadness and loss we face, regardless of those accidents of birth.

Although typically an optimist who believes that given the chance we will do our best to be our best selves – the selves God created us to be – the news of how we behaving in this time gives me pause. I realize daily, it seems, that the anxiety and fear, the separation and loneliness, shed new light on the weaknesses of believing that we are entitled to live our own individual lives as we choose, without regard to the truth that is based in science or any care and consideration for others.


I am struck by how willing we seem to be to defer to our very real feelings of impatience, frustration, and emotional and spiritual exhaustion as we seek to find ways to return to life pre-pandemic. Even though in places such as New Jersey, where I now live and serve God’s people, the rates of infection, hospitalization, and intubation continue to rise to fourth spike levels from a plateau that was at about the same levels as the second major spike (over the summer), there is tremendous pressure from all parts of the community (though not medical professionals, as far as I know) to get back to “normal.” Restaurants, gyms, comedy clubs, and retail stores are opening up. Some churches – though not the Episcopal Diocese of Newark and my favorite, St. Stephen’s in Millburn – are open for business as usual, sometimes with smaller numbers and common sense safety precautions in place, sometimes not so much. This is happening when there is so little, if any, science to support these decisions and a good number of experts saying we need to be patient for a while longer.

I get it, I really do.

I feel cheated every day that I don’t get to gather in-person with the people I have come to love so much at St. Stephen’s. I question every day if I have what it takes to be a pastor in this physically distant, online way, while constantly wondering if any of it feels truly meaningful to those same people. All this while expressing my very real gratitude to those same people for their patience and faithfulness and to the Holy Spirit for those glimpses of grace that I experience when suddenly a new drop of creative juice seems to magically appear just when I need it most. This is a kind of emotional multi-tasking that drains energy at a rate that is hard to fathom.

I miss being able to hop on the train to NYC to see show or just hang out. I miss being able to hop in the car to go see my parents in RI or to my favorite yarn store in MA. These are things I didn’t just think about doing but was doing before March 2020. My plans with my husband about how we would take day trips to get to know NJ, our home for only a little more than a year before Covid, were wiped out. It is so unsettling to not know one’s home after 2 1/2 years.

I worry about traveling to NM in June to officiate my son Kevin’s wedding and then worry some more that Covid will wreak havoc we don’t see coming on the already smaller-than-they-would-have-liked festivities and that my worry about these things could possibly interfere with the joy I feel at officially welcoming my soon-to-be daughter-in-law Alex into the family. This worry is exhausting in and of itself because I’m not usually a chronic worrier. Do I dare hope that I will revert back to my less worried self soon or has this gone on so long that worry is now a familiar state, one of the ways in which I know myself day to day?

I get angry that this dastardly virus already has taken away so much and, more than a year in, insists that we live with uncertainty about what life will look like next week or month or year. Sadness and loss are almost constant companions, threatening to usurp the contentment that has been baseline for more years than I can remember. I find myself having to be more intentional than ever before in tapping into the underlying joy and gratitude that has grounded me for more years than I can remember, perhaps even longer than contentment has been my baseline. I long for the days when I was more aware of joy and gratitude than I was of sadness and loss or anger and frustration or worry.

So I seek the stillness.

I seek the stillness because I know that to be the place in which I best understand who and whose I am, which is the reason for the joy and gratitude in the first place. My awareness that this is also the place that nourishes my faith so that I can invite the Spirit to open me to the grace of God that is so contant and true that not even a global pandemic that feels like it has completely messed with my life cannot mess with my heart. This is the place I find hope. Hope that there will be enough of us willing to remain in this seemingly interminal in-between space of needing to find ways to regain our equilibrium and something that resembles our pre-pandemic lives, while being patient enough to let the science catch up with the ever-changing realities of this virus so that we don’t make foolish and potentially lethal choices out of our exhaustion and need. Hope in the presence of God and the companionship of the Holy Spirit.

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland


This is from the weekly newsletter at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Millburn, the January 17,2020 edition. It was suggested that I share it more widely, so I do so now with you.

There is an anthropological concept: liminality (from the Latin limen, meaning “threshold”) which is about transition, the time when what was is no longer but what is next is yet to come. It is a time of expectation, of anticipation, of hopeful uncertainty.  This is something that pertains to rites of passage, especially in cultures in which there are strong rituals to mark such times. In everyday life, some people experience liminality in challenging life experiences, such as when one is between jobs or is aware of facing end of life.

Celtic spirituality often ascribes liminality to places. In liminal spaces it is said that the veil between heaven and earth, between the Divine and creation, is lifted. The Scottish island of Iona is one such place.  People who visit feel changed, they experience transformation in their relationship with God and God’s creation.  Liminality is not limited to those places multitudes have had this experience.  A liminal space is any place or any time you know or see God in a way that changes you, that moves you deeper into the holy mysteries, deeper into the heart of God.

For me, liminal spaces have long involved bodies of water, such as the ocean or a lake, especially during sunrise or sunset.  The picture on the top left is of sunset in Matunuck, Rhode Island, one of my happy places.  The middle is sunset on Otter Lake in Greenfield, New Hampshire, home of another happy place, the Barbara C. Harris Camp & Conference Center.  The last picture is of the Glorieta Pass in Glorieta, New Mexico.  As you can see, there is no water visible anywhere, nor is there any changing light. Imagine my surprise when I repeatedly found myself looking around, marveling at the astonishing beauty of a landscape that is so unlike those that usually speak to my heart.  And yet, speak to my heart it did, at times in the way that I find myself catching my breath because I don’t want to do anything to lower the veil between heaven and earth, anything that will prevent me from going deeper, getting closer to God.

I share this with you today, not just because I still bask in the experience.  I encourage you to notice when a place or a time when you realize you are catching your breath or have goosebumps or tears in your eyes or whatever it is that signals to you that you are experience God in that moment.  And that take a few moments to bask in the experience before offering a prayer of thanksgiving and gratitude to the one who loves YOU beyond all imagination.

Copyright 2020 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

In the presence of God…

Earlier today I gathered with my diocesan clergy colleagues for the annual Renewal of Vows.  Our bishop, The Rt. Rev. Carlye Hughes, preached to us in her quintessential loving and deeply pastoral way.  She started out by talking about how much she loves being our bishop, how “delighted” she is to know all of us.  She spoke encouraging, honest words, clearly reflecting her understanding of what it is like to be in parish ministry.  Partway through the sermon she said something that caused me to gasp – audibly, perhaps.  She said, “Our job is to put ourselves in the presence of God and then let God change us.”  She went on to say that, in her experience, it is easier to “let God judge us,” but, nonetheless, that is not our job.  We are to let God work on us, in us, and through us because we are created to be doing what we do, in this particular time.

I know she said a whole lot more than that, some of which I remember, though I’m sure she will forgive me for not retaining too much of what she said after the “put ourselves in the presence of God and then let God change us” part.  When she spoke those words, which came after she first mentioned being created for ministry in this time, something in me shifted, something broke wide open.  It felt in that moment as if she were speaking directly to me, speaking about experiences I have had over the past several years, some of which she knows nothing about.

The journey toward ordained ministry, even if it goes as smoothly as it can go, does not leave one unscathed.  I’m not sure that is should.  I believe there is something about how we experience God through the dark times, the challenging times, the times we’d rather not experience if we had our druthers, that changes us in ways that bring us closer to whom it is we are created to be.

Don’t get me wrong.  I also believe that how we experience God through the mountaintop experiences, the exciting times, the uplifting times, changes us in ways that bring us closer to whom it is we are created to be.  This is true, too, in the neutral times, the more mundane times, the times we probably won’t recall in months or years.  All of it is essential because in all of it we are in the presence of the God who created us in the divine image for no other reason than love. God works on, in, and through us in all of it, whether we are aware or not. It’s just that sometimes it is easier to put ourselves -or maybe it’s that we don’t stop ourselves from wandering – into God’s presence during those times we are most aware of needing God’s help.

Parish ministry, even if it goes as smoothly as it can go, does not leave one unscathed.  This, I think, may be hard for folks who have not experienced it to understand.  How is it that a calling – doing the thing God wants or needs you to do in a particular time and place, with particular people – ever be scathing?  The short answer is that being in relationship, even with people with whom you fall deeply in love, as I have with the people I’ve served,  is hard. All of us are deeply human, even those of us in collars.  And as humans we sometimes struggle to be our best selves with each other.  It can be hard not to experience every shortcoming, every failure, every lost hope, as a personal failure. It can be hard not to move to that place of being in the presence of God for God’s judgment, rather than God’s life-giving love, when things don’t go as we or the congregation think they should.

My journey to ordained ministry included a number of challenges, some of which seemed at times to have little or nothing to do with me in particular.  Some of the challenges felt and were deeply personal. The journey to where I am today in ordained ministry included calls to two beautiful, faith-filled congregations where I served for less time than I had planned, though, in retrospect, for just the right amount of time.  I find myself now in a relatively new place, again a beautiful faith-filled congregation, and there is something about this call that seems different in ways that compel me to wonder, to unleash my curiosity in ways that feel new.

No doubt my awareness of what I have learned along the way from all of the people who have journeyed with me to this place and time has something to do with this new feeling of hopeful anticipation.  And, since this morning, I am aware that some of this change is because one of the things I have learned along the way is to go more readily into the presence of God to be changed, trusting that God’s creation of me to be in this place at this particular time is a process of creation that is ongoing and sure.

Interrupted by grace

If you receive the weekly newsletter from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Millburn, this will be familiar.  It is the message for March 1, 2019.
This week in the office has been “one of those weeks.”  You get my meaning, right?  A week in which it seems that nothing I set out to do went without a glitch.  We had computer and phone issues.  We needed to call in the locksmith to fix a broken emergency egress lock.   We were working on all of the somewhat mundane behind the scenes stuff that is necessary to keep the parish going. And, to top it all off, it is also the week the annual parochial report is due.  This is the mandatory reporting to the diocese and national church about membership numbers, attendance at Sunday services, and finances.  Although it is important to our understanding of health and vitality of The Episcopal Church and one of the data sets that is used to decide mission strategies and such, it is probably fair to say it is one of the least favorite parts of parish ministry for most clergy.  And yet it has to be done so we do it.
While working on it this week and, if I am to be truthful, doing so with less than a joyful heart, with thoughts that this is not why I went to seminary and jumped through all the hoops on the way to ordination running through my head, I was interrupted by a woman who came in to talk to me about a personal concern.  I’d never met her before, so I was a bit surprised and had absolutely no way of anticipating where the conversation would go or how it would turn out.  And I am aware that the sudden transition from the highly detailed work I had been doing to talking with someone didn’t feel as seamless as it usually feels for me.  At first I found it hard to ignore the ticking clock that was reminding me so loudly of all the things I needed to get done.
And then it happened!  The wise, wild, and wonderful Holy Spirit cracked it wide open, cracked me wide open.  Suddenly I saw – in that top-of-your-head-to-the-tip-of-your-toes ways of seeing – that this time with her is exactly why I went to seminary and jumped through all the hoops on the way to ordination.  The privilege to just be with someone, to listen to them with your whole heart, to acknowledge their pain and their hope, is what makes all of the mundane daily, weekly, monthly, and annual work worth doing.  True, the gift of getting to be with people often means the work we planned to do gets pushed aside or delayed and we need to rethink our plan.  True, too, the gift of connection to others is one of the surest signs of God’s grace.

Unwitting prayer

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

This poem is one of my favorites by the poet and Episcopalian, Mary Oliver. I’ve been thinking about it this week as I’ve been preparing for my parish’s Day of Pentecost celebration on May 20th, when one of the readings, from Romans 8, includes one of my all-time favorite passages in Scripture:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (vv. 26-27)

The photo is one of several I’ve taken this past week or so.  As I’ve driven up my street after days that have felt long and a bit stressful, as a crazy busy schedule with a new job can often feel, I have noticed the daffodils and other spring flowers blooming in my yard.  And I’ve felt my heart sing and realized I have a big, goofy smile on my face.  All the thoughts I’ve been ruminating about, all the cares and concerns of my heart and my mind, seem to fade away in that good and life-giving way that is gratitude and a sense of abundant blessings. As I have driven up the street and caught my first glimpse of the simple beauty of spring flowers, it is if God is saying, “This. This is what you need.  This. Just this.”

God is right, as God is. This is what I need.  I need to feel less burdened as I move from work-me to home-me, as I move from bi-vocational-me to just-me.  I need to be reminded of the importance of being present to the beauty and grace that surrounds me.  Mostly, I need to know that Paul and Mary Oliver are right:  God does not need me  to pray with special words.  God desires simply that I pray as I am.




Simple presence, radical Hospitality

This post was written at the end of March, though for reasons I don’t quite remember, not published until today.

Last week, at a gathering of church folks, in a workshop about telling our stories, the facilitator asked us to remember a favorite meal.  She then guided us through a meditation.  We were invited to remember as much as we could about the meal: tastes, sounds, smells, people, place, occasion, etc.  As soon as I closed my eyes, I was re-experiencing some of the best hospitality I have ever experienced in my life.  And, though it is now five days since the workshop, I can still feel the warmth in my heart and soul I felt when asked to remember a simple meal about five years ago.  It is as if I am still sitting at the table with my friend.

This morning, as I listened to the Austin Police Chief talk about the recent bombings and heard him say that one of the most important lessons he has learned these past few weeks is the importance of taking the time to get to know your neighbors.  In the midst of the crisis gripping his city, the chief speaks to a profoundly simple truth: we are made to be in relationship and so we flourish and thrive when we connect with others. Throughout the ages, people have known it.  Prophets have proclaimed it. Jesus showed us how to live it.

Tonight, as I sat in prayer, I found myself wondering how can it be that in a world and a time of instant connection, what with texting and cell phones, with instant messaging and video calling, we are as disconnected as we are?  It sometimes feels as if we are never alone, so how can we be lonely?  Why is it that we choose to be separate, to make living this life we have so much more difficult? It seems so hard  to carve out the time from the usual busy-ness of daily life to slow down and just be.  It seems harder to think about making the time to spend time with someone else, unless of course there is a specific purpose to the visit.  And then there are the logistics: What do I cook? Do I cook?  What if she doesn’t like the same foods I like?  Or has a food allergy? Do we go out for coffee or a beer?  What if he doesn’t like coffee, or beer?  What if we have nothing in common? Nothing to talk about?  What will I have to give up or not do to take a few minutes or hours to begin to get to know someone else?  How do I know this is a person I would even want to get to know?

Again I was taken back to a simple meal five years ago.  I don’t remember the specifics though I know there was fish and salad and wine. It was in a tiny kitchen on a cold, rather gloomy day, on the second floor of a three family tenement in a crowded Boston neighborhood. It is the first time and only time I was in that apartment and the first meal we shared, just the two of us.  The invitation came with a work-related question, both of us being priests and chaplains, though I don’t think we ever got to that question. What I remember is the experience of good, honest conversation and the sense of hospitality that infused our time together with true grace.

My friend, a priest and one of the most spiritually grounded people I have ever known, had an amazing gift of hospitality.  He was the guy who made everyone he met feel like the most magnificent, fabulous person he’d ever met.  He was quirky and eccentric and more real than it seems possible to be.  He was irreverently reverent, something he and I had in common.   I remember feeling like a little kid at Christmas when I described myself this way and he, in his quintessential way, leaned in, thought for a minute, laughed his huge laugh, and asked my permission to “borrow” this description.

So, today I am grateful.  Grateful for the question that prompted me to go back to this one simple meal.  Grateful that I have had this and many other opportunities to learn about the gift and grace of connecting with others, and to know that this does not have to be a grand gesture or the result of a tragedy. Grateful for the friendship and hospitality of a good friend and fellow pilgrim.





The vision to envision

On February 20th, the day the Episcopal Church remembers the prophetic witness of Frederick Douglass, I was with several of my colleagues at a gathering of clergy considered “new” to positions in the diocese, while our bishop and other colleagues were at the cathedral for the “Blessing of the Journalists.”  It was one of those times in which it was hard to focus on where you were and why, because so much of you longed to be in another place.  Being who we are, a few of us named this longing.

The colleague hosting our gathering named it beautifully in our shared prayer.  He read from Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and invited us to share our thoughts.  Being people who regularly speak the things they think, i.e. a group of preachers, the conversation was full and rich with layers of shared understanding and unique experience.  As I listened, I was drawn deeper and deeper into one phrase from Douglass’ writing: ” I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!” (pp. 4-5)

Perhaps because I was still being drawn deeper to that prayerful and reflective place in which my ponderings and wonderings reside, I was not yet ready to to speak to that which I was thinking, at least not in a fully formed kind of way.  And being someone who sometimes thinks out loud, and trusting my colleagues to hold that gently, I gave voice to the pull from Douglass’ words.  Although I don’t remember exactly what I said, I know it began being about the impact of experience on one’s perspective.  And it was then that I knew the musing was about vision and how to envision a shared dream or future.  As I sat looking at my friend and colleague, I heard myself saying,  “We can’t see the same things because when you look at me you see something different than I see when I look at you, and that limits us.  And I think it is more so the more focused we become because then we fail to see the people and things we know are around us.”

Now, this is not, as they say, rocket science.  It is not a groundbreaking insight.  Heck, it is not even something I was learning for the first time!  I know and have known for longer than I can remember that we are shaped by our experiences and that our experiences shape our perspectives.  Yet in that moment, sitting in a chapel, looking a friend and colleague in the eye as we engaged in faith-filled conversation about the grievous sin of slavery while reflecting upon the words of a former slave, something felt different.  It felt as if the holy and sacred work is in the reminder that to envision a future in which God’s dream is realized it is necessary that we stand side-by-side looking in the same direction, allowing our tears to wash away the barriers to understanding that what is behind us and past, as well as what is beside us and now, is not the same.