Monday, March 30, 2020

Holy Week at Home

This is unprecedented.

At least for most of us. Probably for all of us.

Granted, many of us have lived through events that have been unprecedented before. September 11th, Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, any number of other hurricanes and wildfires.

Yet even in that destruction - that massive destruction and trauma - parts of the world and our country continued mostly unscathed.

This is unprecedented because we are ALL in the midst of this. We are all in states and countries where COVID-19 has reminded us that we are part of nature, not in control of it. We are all wondering when we can venture back into our familiar spaces of work and worship and wondering how what we are going through will change these familiar places and spaces and our behavior in them.

For over 30 years, I have celebrated Holy Week and Easter in a certain way. I have gathered with my faith community and prayed ancient prayers, sang hymns, sat in the silence, and allowed the liturgy of the Church offered in community to move me, speak to me, and transform me.

This year will be different. I will not gather in the same space with my faith community. I will not hear the choir chant psalms or have the Altar Guild help me as we strip the altar. I will not wash the feet of others and let them wash mine.

I will not proclaim that Christ is risen and hear the joyful bells proclaim the victory of life over death surrounded by amazing people in the holy space of my parish. I will not embrace Christians as we hug in this joy, nor will I celebrate the First Eucharist of Easter in the physical midst of fellow disciples.

What I do know is that the holiest week of the Christian year will still speak to me, to us. We Christians will still pray together, albeit honoring social distancing. We will still be together, but differently, unexpectedly, and not always in a way that I will like or appreciate.

For those of you with a faith community and lay and clergy leaders who are providing ways to keep Holy Week at home, please participate. Pray, be still, and know that God is God. Create a sacred space in your home, an altar to focus your self and soul during these days. Pray the prayers. Allow the silence to sit with you. Make room for the longing, the lamentations of this different way of celebrating will most certainly bring. And make room for the hope that is there, too, that Christians have celebrated Holy Week and Easter in all manner of unusual, unprecedented, and odd ways over the eons.

I will offer on this blog the services that St. Michael's in Lexington, Kentucky is doing for Holy Week at home. Use them, if you like. Share them. Know that we are all praying together in this unusual way, and we are praying with God and each other in this way. There will be texts of readings and prayers as well as digital aspects that can be used (but don't have to be). Do what works for you and your household. Other sites will share, as well. As I am able, I will share links to those sites.

This is unprecedented, and God is unprecedented. The victory of life over the power of death is unprecedented. The proclamation to the world that Christ is Risen is unprecedented. The love we are called to witness and live during this moment is unprecedented.

And we are not alone.

God is with us, and we are with each other.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Renew a Right Spirit within Me

I'm in the midst of submitting another book proposal. It's an unnerving, humbling process. I have an idea, then live with it for weeks, even months, to see if it takes root somewhere. Taking root often means writing a few sentences and paragraphs to see if they can birth a chapter. If they do, I wonder if there are more chapters. Sometimes there aren't, and those words go into a place to germinate some more.

If something does take root, then I begin researching. Are there other books like this? If so, have any been written by women? If so, then I read them. Mostly at the same time. I am quite amazed there are people who read just one book at a time. I have my living room book, my bedtime book, my morning coffee book, my drink afternoon tea when I come back from walking Evie book.

One might say I have a problem, but that notwithstanding, I read the words written.

Which is excruciating and amazing, all at the same time. I read their writing, and I find phrases and sentences that I fall in love with. I underline them and re-read them and wonder how, just how, a normal human could write such a lovely string of words. I am amazed.

Then I think I might as well never write again, because I will never be able to write like that, that beautifully, that elegantly, that profoundly. I get discouraged, which, from what my other writer friends tell me, is fairly common. The devil lives in discouragement.

Writing is a ridiculously intimate discipline. Writers, especially those of us who share our writings through essays, sermons, poems, and books, know well what Hemingway meant by saying writing is sitting at a keyboard and bleeding.

That spirit of writing, our sharing ourselves, is a gift, and it needs regular righting, so to speak. We sometimes forget the balance between sharing what has been aged appropriately to share and publishing our diaries. We forget the balance between writing from our spirit and writing for our jobs.  We stop seeing the way we use words and phrases and valuing the way God has settled these words in us to share and only see the value in the ways THEY write and comparing ourselves, mostly harshly.

And we get discouraged.

Life is discouraging. And just when the days seem tired and long, when winter has overstayed its welcome (at least in my part of the world) and we long for change because the present seems bleak, feels bleak, and is bleak, the Church whispers, "Lent."

Lent. Spring. Come.

Be silent, kneel, and repent.

Repent of the discouragement we've listened to that tells us we aren't enough, we aren't good, and we need to be silent and sit down. Repent of the words we've written and said that have hurt us and our friends and even those who were friends but because of words and actions, aren't anymore. Repent of the things done and left undone that tell ourselves and others, "You aren't enough."

Repent and be renewed.

Psalm 51, the psalm we say in response to the imposition of ashes, contains the petition, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." For all the many reasons I love Lent, I love the prayer to God to clean my heart. Clean it of the stuff that has accumulated over the year(s) that prevents me from loving God, loving my neighbor and my enemy, and loving myself. Polish the things that need to brighter, to shine more because I've forgotten they are Gifts of the Spirit entrusted to me to share with the world. And renew a right spirit within me. Renew my courage, my hope, my grace, and my kindness. Renew the Holy Breath within me because I am filled with some stale air.

Remind me of the words of Lent - self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; reading and meditating on God's holy Word - that they are ways to clean our hearts of the stuff we don't need and renew our spirits.

Blessed Lent. May you be created and be renewed.


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.