Sunday, November 17, 2019

In That Room

That I am an Alabama alumni is not a surprise to many of y’all. I grew up cheering for Alabama football. My own relationship as an enthusiastic fan of football is waning. The evidence of CTE makes watching the sport less and less enjoyable knowing the cost some of its players will pay.

I was out and about on Saturday, celebrating a parishioner’s birthday with lunch, checking out the grand opening of World Market, and attending a fundraiser for the Lexington Humane Society. In between those events, a fellow Alabama alum and more dedicated football fan than I texted me about the grave injury that happened in the game to the Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. He sustained a dislocated hip with a posterior wall fracture.

He’s clearly out for the season. He may be done playing big time football forever. 

As I prayed Compline before bed, I held the image of that young man in prayer. We forget he’s really still a kid in many ways, lying in a hospital bed, awaiting experts and their diagnoses and treatments, wondering if the life he’d planned, the life he’d dedicated thousands of hours to, is done.

I thought about his parents and their worry, probably catching in their voices even as they tell him all of this will be okay. I thought of the coaches and all the second-guessing that is almost inevitably part of being indirectly involved in a tragic life-changing moment. What if, why did, did we…all of that fills the room, fills the souls of those who are reminded that life is so very random, so very not as much in our control as we always want to believe.

I’ve been in that room with parents, with spouses, with children, with loved ones in the aftermath of an unexpected health catastrophe, although my experience is that most health catastrophes are almost always unexpected. Some loved ones come into the room to sit for as long as they need to be present. They hold hands and check that the covers are tucked in and make small talk with the nurses when they come in to change IV bags. One person is randomly designated the contact person, answering the phone and responding to texts. “Yes, you should come. No, we don’t know more.” 

I’ve been in that room as some come inside the room for an instant and offer a moment of laughter with guarded humor, grasping at any of the resources we have in our souls to make this better, even for a small moment. Something, surely, will make it better. “He liked jokes. I know he can hear. He’d be glad you came,” someone offers. Others wait outside, as if not coming in the room and seeing the reality of the situation will make it less true. 

I’ve been in that room as we wait for the doctors to deliver the news, some news, any news. Sometimes the news is good and hopeful, and everyone lets out the breath they didn’t realize they were holding. More than not, the words are vague and a source of moderate hope, but filled with more unknowns, more questions, more silence as tears are held back until we step outside so she won’t see how upset we are and he will know we are still expecting the best. Then there are the times the words are what we never want to hear. The doctor speaks, and then there is silence. That holy, heartbreaking silence that is indeed too deep for words.

I’ve been in that room, offering prayers, which I know are helpful but often, in these moments, seem small and insignificant. I know they aren’t, and I also know how much I would give for this not to be happening, for these people not to be gathered here in the midst of this tragedy, this heartbreak. More useful seem to be the tissues I hand to people, along with the implicit permission to weep. “Have you eaten?” I always ask. Trauma either makes us ravenous or allergic to food – almost no in-betweens. I can’t undo this situation, but I can get coffee.

“What if…why…how?” someone inevitably whispers. I learned long ago those aren’t really questions. They are laments to God, the anguish of the harsh reminder of just how vulnerable our human bodies are.

Tonight, a star quarterback for Alabama is in this room, and, with the family’s well-known Christian faith, I am sure their pastor is in that room with them, offering prayers and presence. Tua does not seem to be in a life-threatening situation, and there is still trauma, prayers, worry, and trepidation. There is still unknown in the room with them.

I’m also aware that this same night, hundreds of others are in these rooms, in the midst of tragedy. They aren’t celebrities, so not as many people are saying prayers or asking how they can help. Their families and loved ones are gathered, holding hands, waiting, praying. All the hope and heartbreak are sitting in these rooms, too. Perhaps they feel too alone in these rooms. Perhaps they are alone. 

Maybe in our prayers, we can remember them and those who love them, those who are in these rooms tonight. 

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.



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.