With the heart of a child

My sermon from Easter, 2019.

I have a great niece, Ava, who is ten.  Ava is one of those bright, gregarious children who greet every day as if it is the best thing ever and created only for her.  She is witty and self-confident, with a child’s refreshing ability to speak the truth as she sees it.  There are times she drives her mother absolutely crazy for all the reasons a great aunt thinks she is absolutely delightful.  Ava soaks up love in incredible measure and is, in return, also an incredibly loving child. 

A few years ago, when Ava was six, her mother, Kelly, posted a Facebook picture of her posing and gazing thoughtfully at herself in the mirror.  Kelly said it was the 50th time that morning.  As I laughed at Kelly’s comment, I felt my heart smile, in part because I miss those days when my own children were drawn to check themselves out in the mirror or eager to be photographed with some cheesy smile.  I miss those days when my own children would come running to me with one of their discoveries:  “Mommy, did you know….?”  “Mommy, look what I found….”  “Mommy look what I did…”

There is something compelling, in a joyful and gentle way, to be given the opportunity to witness such a life.  The innocence of childhood.  The simplicity of life. The complete, unadulterated acceptance of the love you are given. The sheer joy in seeing what life has to offer, jumping in, not just with both feet, but with the whole body, mind, and soul.  Having an apparently endless capacity to tell a story with unadulterated enthusiasm and wonder.  And approaching each situation – even if it is the 50th time you’ve looked at yourself in the mirror in a single morning – with the same energy, excitement, and enthusiasm as if it were the first time.   And at the same time, somehow, seeming to live each day as if it might be your last.  Using that same energy, which can drive a mother crazy, to share the news with the world, your world, in pictures or honest spoken truths.  Somehow helping the adults in your life see the world a bit differently than they did the day before.

When I saw that Facebook picture of Ava, I was reminded of how refreshing and life-affirming it is to have the confidence and the courage to speak the truth, in words or in pictures.  There is something captivating about the raw energy of a child’s exuberance.  There is something positively evangelical about a child’s awe and wonder.  Seeing the world through a child’s eyes it is as if one were seeing the world for the very first time.  It is as if life were new each and every time. 

Today is Easter, the day in which we celebrate the divine Love poured out for us and conquering death.  It is the day in which we share the culmination of the Gospel story, which is ours to soak up in incredible measure, just like a child soaks up and then revels in the love in her life.  It is the day in which we listen again to the fulfillment of the promises God made to us at the beginning of all creation.  Although in history Easter was a distinct event, it is, paradoxically, new for us each and every day.  That, too, is God’s promise.

Jesus life, his death, and his resurrection were all about love.  Jesus was the incarnation of God’s self-giving, unconditional love for the world. He reached out time and again to those others ignored, to those others excluded.  He brought them: poor, homeless, ill, women, into his life, God’s life, loving them fully and well, giving them hope.  He died because he preached a radical and counter-cultural message of love that threatened the political and religious authorities.  He rose because God’s perfect love can never be overcome by death or anything else of human making. 

Jesus was, is, and will always be the expression of God’s perfect love in the world. 

He showed us through his words and his actions how to live as God intends, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  He taught us how to respond to God’s indwelling love by offering it out to others. A love like this must be shared over and over and over again.  It is the source of all that is, a comfort in our sorrows, the joy in our hearts, our peace of mind.  It is the promise of our past, present, and future.  It is all of that and more.  Indescribable. Unimaginable.  Undefinable. Unconditional. Unequivocable.  It is both supremely constant and deliciously new each and every day.

There is more to today’s story, however, than just a retelling of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  It is impossible to separate Jesus’ story from our stories: from your story, from my story, from the stories of all those who have come before and those yet to receive the breath of life. 

Jesus lived, died, and lived again so that we might live our lives- that we might live God’s love – with the sheer exuberance of a six-year-old child, who knows who she is and still chooses to greet herself 50 times in a morning as if she will discover something new. 

My prayer for all of us is that we experience the Easter story with joyful abandon, a child’s perspective on life and the world. May we always embrace God’s love for us, and have the willingness to tell the story over and over again as if it were the first time it were ever told. 

Jesus lives!  Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

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

daffodils and hyacinths

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.

Middle bits of wilderness

I know I am not alone when I say that the Parkland school shooting feels different. It changed something in me.  Perhaps it is because I have finally had enough – though why the first or the second or the umpteenth school shooting was not enough is a question I take to God in prayer.

Perhaps it is because it occurred on the day of the Hallmark celebration of love and I heard one of the survivors say she initially thought the gunshots were Valentine’s Day balloons popping.  The innocence of that broke my already broken heart.

Perhaps it is because our youngest child and only daughter turned 18 on that day, and as I celebrated her burgeoning adulthood and increasing independence, I was wistful for the days that seem both like yesterday and so long ago when she was a perfectly formed and healthy 3 lb., 9 oz bundle of grace, who taught me for the third time that there are no bounds on love.

Perhaps it is because it was Ash Wednesday, the day Christians like myself enter into the season of solemn reflection and repentance by accepting a mark of our humility on our foreheads.  I know I have been stricken by my need to repent of my complicity in supporting a culture in which previously unspeakable violence is now commonplace. I know this more deeply as I listen to the despicable hubris of people who have the power and position to take meaningful action but who lack the moral authority and gumption to do so.

Perhaps it is for all of these reasons and maybe some I have not yet encountered in my consciousness. Whatever the reasons, the Parkland school shooting feels different and I am changed.

In my sermons this  past weekend, I preached about the Gospel (Mark 1:9-15):

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is a Gospel that at times has reassured me and at other times terrorized me.  (An aside: I took a class in seminary called “Preaching Texts of Terror” and this is the Gospel passage I chose.)

Whenever I hear the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” or the similar words found in other Gospel stories, I imagine God saying those words to me, and my heart sings.  One of my favorite things to do as priest and pastor, as chaplain, as neighbor and friend, is to remind people that God feels that way about them, too.  You can probably imagine my unfettered joy when an eight-year-old boy told me that God said those words to his four-year-old brother when we baptized the little guy in the late fall.

I almost always, to the extent that I probably could say “always” and have it be true enough to be truthful. hear the final sentence as comforting and an assurance of the hope I feel that God’s dream for God’s creation will come to be.

It is the middle verses, those about Jesus being driven out into the wilderness, that can bring comfort – “Of course I wrestle with temptation.  Even Jesus wrestled with temptation!”- or terror – “How can I ever even begin to think I can resist this temptation when even Jesus had to struggle?”  It is a Gospel passage I come back to time and time again when I am in the midst of a struggle and need to hear the beginning and the end so that I can get through the middle bits.

This week it has touched me in a way I am challenged to articulate clearly, though I felt, and continue to feel, compelled to talk about it.  There is something to be learned, something I need to learn, about the juxtaposition of love and the wilderness as I do the prayerful work of repentance and seek to understand the ways I am called to act. I find that my heart is all bound up in an almost consuming need to do something, anything, so that our young people, our children, never have to wrestle with the middle bits of a terrifying wilderness that is strictly of human making.

I have taken this to God in my prayer.  I have asked and continue to ask for the courage and wisdom to live my faith more boldly in the face of the evil that would place anything above the safety and well-being of children. I am learning that I am willing to venture into the wilderness that is corporate greed and a weapons-strengthened self-centered fear of anyone different, or that same fear of loss of power over another.

I enter this wilderness to repent of my complicity in conveying to my daughter, and to daughters and sons everywhere, that anything is more valuable, more important than their safety or their lives. I am willing to go into the wilderness that is eradicating gun violence to use the privilege I have as a white, middle-class, educated, professional woman to speak to another kind of power, the humble power that I see in Jesus’ example of unconditional love.  My heart is all bound up in a call to ensure that the only message our children hear from those who are responsible to nurture and protect them is “You are beloved. Believe in this good news.”