Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Margins

I’m editing my book collection.

Our public library has a fall book sale, and receiving the reminder postcard was a motivation to admit I could indeed cull some books, many of which I bought from previous sales, from my shelves. 

And from stacks on the floor. And a few stacks on tables. 

Some books I’ve read and enjoyed, but don’t feel compelled to keep. I added a stack of the historical figure quasi-romance novels to the box. They were entertaining at one point, but not now, given that far too many write about the Tudor era and muck up the facts about the church. A few old seminary text books that were written for a church two decades past went in the box. And one Evelyn Underhill book.

I love Evelyn Underhill and her writings about mysticism. The problem with the book? It has no margins. The pages are thousands of words from the top of the page to the bottom, and small print, at that. The book was a review copy, so my hope is the final copy had margins.

Because a page with no margins feels too congested to read. When I tried to read some of my favorite passages on mysticism, the sheer enormity of the words on the page and the almost comprehensive lack of any space in between the words, sentences, and paragraphs felt alarming to me. Any sense of contemplation, silence, and observation that Underhill’s words communicated were obscured by the physical appearance of the words on the page.

As I hesitantly added this book to the pile, I wondered about the margins in my life. Too often, we flee from one meeting to another, from one moment to another, without any margins. We wake up in the morning and go. And we keep going until we sink into bed at night, hoping sleep will provide the blank spaces, the gaps, and openings we need for rest. Any pseudo-margin time we may have we often multi-task, checking our emails or social media while drinking coffee to keep us going at top speed. Then, quite often, we’re surprised when our rest (or lack of it) at night reflects the go-go-go of our days. Having the dozens of pages of our days occupied completely can rarely be balanced by one part of a blank page on rare occasion. 

As a priest, I find this practice more seductive than it ought to be. The cult of busy-ness invites us to write the narratives of our day from top to bottom, side to side, leaving no margins for quiet, for breathing, for contemplating. A surprise moment of down time comes and too often our first inclination is to fill it with something. 

A reality is sometimes our schedules simply squeeze out margins. Unexpected events and moments mean we will add a scribble into the margin on the page of our day. But to add these surprise events, the unplanned moments, and these extra words life often gives us, we must indeed have the space to begin with. We must have the margins.

Margins are the quiet space, the moments Jesus sails across the lake for time on his own, the languid meals between disciples on a beach, the long walks across the wilderness. The margins give us time to reflect, to do nothing, to be in our selves and souls, and to rest. They are necessary for life.

How do we create these margins?

The liturgy of the church has some excellent examples. Most Episcopal churches don’t begin immediately with the acclamation (the opening words of worship). Most have times of silence as worshippers slip into the pews and sit or kneel in prayer. Perhaps they just sit and peruse the service bulletin. All of these create a space, a margin to set apart our time with God. 

Other churches have musical preludes before worship that aren’t wasted time, but instead a margin in which we can sit and breathe with the rhythm of the music, allowing for space between whatever narrative life is writing and the holy words of God. 

I think about the margin I need before worship, before focused time with God. When I come in, rushed from whatever was in the hour slot before prayer and slide in, either exactly on time or late, I have no margin to allow for transition. I’ve squeezed the words of God into whatever space I have left. Does God still love me? Of course.

But have I likely missed some words that would have benefitted my soul because I didn’t allow space in the narrative of my life? Probably so.

Evelyn Underhill writes, in one of my favorite insights, “We mostly spend [our] lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do... forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be.”

We all find ourselves filling in the margins of our lives with words written by our own desires, our own wants, our own egos, and even our own anger (my spiritual director loves to remind me how anger often masquerades as too many things to do because then we can be too busy to sit with it). When we find ourselves with too many words on the page, perhaps we can settle into the words of Evelyn and remember to be. 

Be still. Be quiet. Be present with some beautiful music or a friend in conversation or a walk in nature. Be willing to explore why we may need to fill in the margins, and be open to see that, in the open spaces in our days, God waits for us to be present.

Be in the margins.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Did You Get My Text?

A reality of our world today and our relationships today is the amount of time we spend communicating verbally but non-verbally – all those emails, texts, direct messages, emojis, gifs, and other ways we share information with each other without actually being in each other’s physical space.

I love that with my close friends who live hundreds and even thousands of miles away, I can share some element of my mediocre daily life while I’m standing in line at Target (I came in for moisturizer and dog treats. I’m leaving with an entirely new d├ęcor for my living room. How’s your day?); notify a friend meeting me for lunch I’m running late or that the parking in our favorite ice cream place is, as usual, something akin to the fires of Mordor; and exchange pictures of our various loves on four legs – horses, pups, and kitties. 

This communication matters. What can seem like unimportant information of the common moments of our lives reminds us of the uncommon beauty of relationships. The text about a new book we read or movie we saw that left us in ugly cry tears is worth sharing. The emoji that communicates a day of frustration and exhaustion reminds us we aren’t alone. The tweak of the Holy Spirit has often found me via any number of texts, emails, and messages, reminding me of the vast community of love that holds me, especially in the moments I feel most unsettled.

And this communication has its limits. 

I have found, mostly through my own error, that these types of communication are fabulous ways to share information, but tragically inept ways to engage in serious and significant conversation. 

Why?

For one, so much communication occurs non-verbally. When we are discussing significant topics and  entering into the holy space of vulnerability and honesty, we share our selves and souls in what we say and, even more so, in what we don’t say. How we are physically present with ourselves and the other, how we respond to silence that is so valuable to these significant conversations, and how we are in conversational dialogue rather than short speeches we tap out via our phones all communicate care, distrust, love, and even hate.

Texts and emails are essentially short monologues. They are not conversations. I say something, then wait for someone to respond, usually readying my own response rather than taking time to listen (or, more accurately, read). Messages get delivered out of order, and how we interpret various texts and emails often has much to say about us. Too often, we are texting while we are doing any number of other activities. Again, if I’m sharing random notes of my day, that’s acceptable. If a friend is trying to talk about the grief she’s experiencing on the anniversary of her wife’s death, I don’t need to be texting her while I’m pouring a glass of iced tea while watching the timer on my microwave tick down.

I need to be present to her and to the holy words we share with each other. 

We often fall short of this presence, whether we are in each other’s physical space or talking on the phone, but hearing another’s voice, seeing another’s pattern of breath or how they fiddle with a random piece of paper, provides the presence of the other and not the presence of a keyboard. In these places, we are incarnate with each other, not a phone or keyboard. We can take a moment; we can ask for clarification; we can see how the other responds. When I have only to look at a phone, I’m essentially locked in an echo chamber with my own ego.

I’ve also long thought, when I’ve engaged in difficult and challenging conversations via texts or emails, if I’m not trying less to find a resolution and more to control the narrative. A fearful part of vulnerable and honest conversations is the lack of control. I have to share my truth, and I am called to hear the truth of another. In a wonderful world, those coincide and all is right with the world. 

In the world in which most of us live, those truths are often opposed, clouded in misunderstandings and our own baggage, and shaded by past wounds and fears. When I hear how my actions or inactions have hurt another, I am invited to delve deeply into my self. I am invited to confess my limits of love in thought, word, and deed. And I may be invited to have courage to share how another has hurt me, not in defense of my actions, but in hope of reconciliation of relationship. Monologues do not do this; dialogues do. 

I’ve become more comfortable with sharing, when a conversation via text or email ventures into this particular holy space of communication, that this topic seems better discussed in person in incarnational dialogue. Some people agree; others don’t. That tells me much of what I need to know about how they understand dialogue. A good guideline is that texts and emails are wonderful for information, but not so helpful for communication. 

Our human relationships matter, especially for those of us covenanted in faith communities. We are so fortunate to have many options to share the momentous and miniscule events in our lives to build, deepen, and strengthen the ties that bind us. May we value them all in their place as they build, piece by piece, moment by moment, the relationships with each other.



Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Articles of Religion

In the back of the Book of Common Prayer are a stash of pages collectively known as the historical documents. Early in my Episcopal faith, I mined them during particularly boring sermons and too-long lasting committee reports during church conventions for artifacts of our Church's relationship with our past understanding of God. These historical documents include the Creed of St. Athanasius (most likely not written by St. Athanasius, but a fairly good sermon for Trinity Sunday if you need one); the Preface from the first Book of Common Prayer (I'm still stunned there are lay and clergy who've never read and inwardly digested this); the Articles of Religion; and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (I'm still stunned there are lay and clergy who haven't memorized this).

The Historical Documents are actually more than relics of our faith; they are foundational to our Episcopal faith. They show us, as much as an edited document can, the concerns, the questions, and the hopes of our ancestors in the faith. And I argue none of these documents does this moreso than the Articles of Religion.

The Articles, 39 statements, in a way, of faith adopted (sort of) by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1801, invite us into the conversations and questions our Episcopal Church and the Christian Church as a wider body have struggled with for centuries. Not only are they worth reading, they are worth studying and struggling with.

And thankfully, Young Peoples' Theology Blog is doing just that. They have been publishing essays that invite our conversation with each of the 39 Articles. I commend them to you - the essays are engaging, informative, and challenging, just as our faith should be.

Check out this series. For those of you looking for a summer adult forum, it's an excellent subject. Pick a few articles. Read them. Learn about our faith. Agree and disagree. But, above all, know about the past and present and future of the conversations we've had with each other about how we live out this great mystery of faith.

You can find the blog here.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Puzzle of Lent

Without much thought, I started a puzzle on the day before Ash Wednesday. It’s a winter snow scene of Gethsemani, the monastic community best known for having Thomas Merton as a member, and a typical winter landscape of barren trees and grey. Lots and lots of grey, with the chapel centered among the snow and ice. I put most of the border together on the first day, less one piece that made me certain the puzzle had come defective.

I found the one edge piece I was missing a week later, nestled among the 500 pieces less the ones that formed the border. Then I started with parts of the picture that seemed easily identifiable. These did not include the barren trees or what looked like 837 pieces of shades of grey and white snow. 

And through the days of Lent, I’d stop by my dining room table, half filled with papers and tax documents waiting for me to finish organizing them to take to my accountant and half filled with a puzzle that exists in various stages of incompleteness. Each day of Lent I’ve put a few new pieces in place, survey the entirety of the puzzle, then go off to whatever life holds for the next few hours. On rare occasion I’m able to sit down for a significant amount of time to piece together this puzzle. No matter the length of time, slowly, since Ash Wednesday, I’ve realized putting together this puzzle has been quite the Lenten discipline.

Well-known preacher Joel Gregory says oftentimes, the best sermons find you. This Lent, I’m reminded the best Lenten disciplines find us, as well. God, spread across the dining room table in 500 pieces, nestled in my life in a brilliant Lenten discipline about life and faith. With each piece I’ve put in place, I’ve had time to ponder and reflect on all that is a life of faith, our ministries, and what lessons I always need to remember. So what has the puzzle of Lent put together for me?

1.      Find the boundaries– Maybe some people put puzzles together in another way, but for me, finding those border pieces creates a defined space for all the other pieces to come together in a full picture. Our human lives mirror that in an absurdly perfect way. We must define ourselves first to hold all the stuff that is us, the fullness of God in us, together. We can’t depend on other people to define our boundaries, because others are neither responsible for nor capable of defining other’s boundaries. We can't even depend on roles developed by others to define us. We must deeply know in our selves and souls we are beloved of God. In that love, I can fill in with all sorts of things. In that love, I recognize where I begin and someone else ends, and I'm not hoping something or someone will define me. But make no mistake, forming the boundary is work, lifetime work. But worthwhile and necessary work.

2.     Sometimes the big picture helps, but don’t forget to notice the small details– I have a friend who loves puzzles. She puts together 10 million piece puzzles that are entirely one color for fun. And she thinks using the picture on the box is cheating. Me? I need to see the big picture to notice where the chapel windows are and which shade of grey I’m working with. And I need to notice the small details – the different types of barren tree branches, for example. As a minister, my life involves knowing the big picture things, the rules, we might say, of pastoral care, of church leadership, of preaching, and of liturgy. But the nuance of knowing the person with whom I’m sitting in grief, the history of the church I’m helping lead, the congregation to whom I’m preaching, and the deep, rich ages of ages story of the liturgy that holds us together helps me see the important detail of the big picture. Too often I see ministers of all types (lay and ordained) frustrated because the approach they learned in seminary falls flat with a certain pastoral situation or the authority they wield in one area of life with success does damage (or at least makes people really aggravated) in another area. Human relationships with each other and with God have some commonalities, and they are not always subject to a neat and tidy checklist. Know the rules and guidelines, and be wise, courageous, and stupidly faithful enough to know when to break them. That only happens because we see the vastness and the minute parts of it all.

3.     Do the easy parts first– Really, I’m not too proud to say life in faith is a marathon that can leave us weary. And I’m reminded, before I launch into the meetings that will be challenging, into the pastoral situations that will bend and break my heart, to do the easy parts first in my day or my week. Here’s where I get in my pulpit and say the easy part is almost always prayer. Not easy in that "comfortable and always fun" way, but easy in that my body knows when I light the candle and take three deep breaths, silently saying The Jesus Prayer, my soul knows exactly what to do because I've done this prayer for decades (inching into quarter century time). And, thanks to Brother Lawrence, I also know how to find the easy things as I practice the presence of God. When you see your pastor or congregation leader doing something that seems to be not their job, they might be doing something easy because sometimes (lots of times) we have to face uneasy, difficult, and arduous tasks. Folding bulletins, cleaning the silver, arranging the chairs for Sunday – they are the easy parts we can do in prayerfulness to ready ourselves for the harder tasks that await.

4.     Sometimes you simply have to try the pieces until you find one that fits– God knows we all want success right out of the gate, and yet, that’s rarely the way faith works. As I’ve filled in the easier parts of the puzzle, eventually I’m left with the pieces that are all one color, and there’s one way I’m putting them together: I'm going to try a piece in differing places until it fits. Trying different options and approaches until we find one that fits is tedious. tiresome work. We often will opt for something that almost fits and force it. In a puzzle, that throws the whole puzzle off, and I suspect it does the same thing in our lives. Faith is fabulous, and faith is tedious. When it’s tedious, keep working, because eventually something drops into place. 

5.     Time gives us vision – I know people who would sit down and do this puzzle in a few days, even hours. I’m easing in to the fullness of Lent to put it together. And this is the valuable lesson God has pieced together for me (more of a reminder than a new lesson, but still) – time gives me vision. I may fit a few pieces together, then hit a wall and walk away because life is waiting and the microwave let me know lunch is ready. And then I come back the next day while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil and, without any effort, immediately see the way other pieces fit together. Our absence from a task is as important as our focused presence on it. God works in the fullness of time, even (and I’d even say especially) in the waiting of it, in the moments we’re away from focused attention. We go on with our daily activities, then return to a situation, a prayer, our discernment, and realize we’ve given God enough space to give us a new vision, some new insight, even the ability to hear the new thing God wants to tell us. Ministry is as much allowing things to unfold in their due season as it is working and planning. If we try to control all of faith and ministry, we’ve also controlled God right out of the equation.

I’m down to about 40 more pieces. They are all the same color, so I very well may slide in just under the line of the Saturday before Palm Sunday to get this put together before Holy Week begins. And when I do, I’ll take a photo of the whole puzzle, put together, and leave it on the table for Holy Week, giving thanks for the lessons God reminded me about life in ministry and life in faith through 500 pieces. Then I’ll disassemble it, put it back in the box (hopefully without losing any pieces).


And on Easter Monday, I’ll begin this 1000 piece puzzle I purchase when I visited the Grand Canyon. Because the lessons from God never end.