Monday, November 21, 2016

Spiritually Reshaped from the Inside Out

Over the last several months, there have been three different types of brain disease in my immediate family. One type is stroke, another type is dementia, and the third type is severe mental illness. Each brain disease has left a member of my family severely compromised in permanent and compounding ways. For me, the most serious of them all is the change in the relationships we now have with one another. A friend asked, "Are you mad at God for all this?" "No" I replied, "God has never left. Through all these changes, God in Christ stays close.

As the impact of the brain diseases was sinking into my emotions and my soul I said to a friend, "I feel like I am being spiritually remade from the inside out." The remaking begins with how I am in the world as believer, a pray-er, a witness to the living Christ. Since this road of my spiritual journey is so new, I look more towards others for guidance.

The guidance comes from caregivers. My relationship to these three family members is now not through conversation or anything that makes sense. So I hear the voice of Christ in gibbisher and repetitious questions. I agree with them and then turn to the caregiver for interpretation. I look for the gentle parameters of yes and no that the caregivers can put in place but that are not longer accepted from me. I trust a medical system that wants the same thing I do for my loved ones: comfort and healing while never completely understanding how we will get there. My view is day to day, visit to visit, hour to hour.

Yet, at the same time, the medical frame for healing is not always what my loved ones need, especially concerning my loved one with severe mental illness. My family member does not fit the tradition model of taking medication and therapy to get well again. Instead it is I who must enter the world of mental illness in conversation and compassion to help him help me understand what he needs. This way of loving is not from the head but from the heart. I feel closest to my loved one in centering prayer. I rely on the well of God's connection created in contemplation to feed me in the exercise of loving mental illness.

The guidance also comes from friends. A friend, to me, is a sacred relationship. Friendship now are deeper, more dependent, trusting in another's goodness. Their goodness flows into the empty spaces in me. Together, we can all give love again and again and again.

My spiritual reforming is at the beginning. So far it has drawn me deeper into prayer, listening, being present to life as it is now because that is where Christ is, and sacred friendships. This path is not one I chose but it is the path of Christ that I am now traveling.

And, I believe there are millions of people with families members with brain diseases who are on the same journey. I hope we can find the faith words, the theological words, to speak to one another.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Gender Matters, and so does our other differences

"Why can't you be more like your husband?" a senior lay leader asked me. It was six weeks into my tenure as the rector (senior pastor) of a complex, large parish. He didn't ask it with a wondering tone, or an imploring tone. He asked it in the there-is-something-not-right-with-you tone. I spent the next ten years alert to the spoken and unspoken differences people perceived in leadership.

Yesterday, I thought of all my clergy colleagues across the country as they spoke the words of the Gospel to the thousands upon thousand of people gathered in their congregations. I was aware that in some places my women colleagues had a larger challenge than the men. I was aware that in some places, the strong, clear, compassionate woman in the pulpit was a welcome voice and a comfort. I was aware of the mission of the church- the reconciling love of God, from the voice and presence of my colleagues of different races, languages, gender preferences, and political points of view. I prayed for them all because all our differences matter in one very important way.

And that significant way is awareness. "Why can't you be more like..." means there is a standard to which one is being compared. And when only that one standard is the staring point of relationship, the ears, heart, and mind shut down to the message. (I lost count of the number of times some particular people would say, "I can't hear you," even though the sound system was working fine,others in the pew next to them had no problem, and the individuals did not have physical hearing loss.) Being aware of the differences opens to behavior not the person as the standard. Instead of the standard being a person, the standard becomes clarity, purpose, commitment to a life of God, the welfare of the congregation or organization or group. All these standard show through in preaching, leading, and in relationship with those we serve.

Gender matter, race matters, age matters, language of origin matters and more. More important than this list is how each person, each leader, is aware to be that being clear, consistent, compassionate, and committed to standards beyond one type of person matters most of all.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Let's Talk About Fear

Let’s talk about fear. And, let’s talk about a particular type of fear that floats around us like a fog but no one seems to be able to say it is clouding our vision. This fear is not the fight or flight to an immediate danger. It is not the fear of suddenly slamming on the brakes when the car in front of you stops short. It is not the fear that your adolescent will make a stunningly bad choice with life long consequences. This fear is from grief that is part of all of our lives. But since we won’t name the grief, the grief grows into fear. And since we won’t talk about the fear, we project onto others. So let’s talk about ambiguous fear. It all starts with ambiguous grief.

Perhaps you heard the recent Krista Tippet interview “ The Myth of Closure” with Pauline Boss. Boss names those places in our hearts that contain the losses in our lives that we cannot control and that remain with us. She calls these losses Ambiguous Grief, and they are a part of being human. Most of examples focus on trauma, such as 9/11 or the Japanese Tsunami but they are also as personal as a loved one disappearing into mental illness or autism or Alzheimer’s. Ambiguous grief is about a loved one disappearing.

We all grieve with the loss of connection, especially with those to whom we are close. But when a human connection is severed, for example a plane disaster, then we connect with our grief even if the event happened to someone we don’t know. Today, as a mother with a daughter traveling in Asia, I fear her loss through a plane crash or tsunami or toppling of an unstable government. I do not walk around sad all the time, but I am aware of a constant unsettledness. Since it is not unusual for 20 something’s to travel and it is not unusual for mothers to worry, I do not feel that something is wrong with her or me. The point is as a human being, I connect with the loss of others. I go out to eat, ride trains and subways, go to the movies, fly in planes, and go dancing. These are all places that loved ones have suddenly been taken away. I identify with those places. So, we all have some ambiguous grief.

As more and more layers of ambiguous grief build it ferments into what I call ambiguous fear. After so many of our neighbors know economic ruin because jobs moved away, after so many natural disaster, crashes, attacks, it becomes more and more possible that these tragedies could happen to us. The likelihood that we could be next grows in our hearts.

An additional component of ambiguous fear is that we deny that the fear is inside of us. Then only place it can then go is outward. The most likely outward targets are people who we don’t know but who are associated with having caused other tragedies. Do you remember the Oklahoma City bombing and the initial reports that described men of Arab descent leaving the scene? In fact, it was an American white man, Timothy McVeigh, who was the bomber. Our projection outward targets someone not like us, someone associated with other events of fear.

Ambiguous Fear is my term for the force that grips our country, and others, now. Events like Sandy Hook, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Katrina, keep happening. With each event, our ambiguous fear grows. We will not name the fear that as a nation we are not going back to the post World War II boom. We fear that our lives will never be better. We will not name our inner fears that our thriving economic system somehow did not spread out the benefits of economy to everyone. We will not name the fear of the inevitable unknown that closer connections across the globe bring. When it was novel, then it was fun. Now that globalization changes life everyday, we are afraid. And, as the pressure from within builds up, the ambiguous fear eventually must be expelled.

That ambiguous fear means that ‘other people’ are taking our jobs, or changing our values, or eroding our freedom. The ideas that we can control our destiny by taking back that which we believe has been taken away promises to restore what is familiar and therefore what we believe to be right. The advice on how to overcome ambiguous fear is to restore the balance. Every candidate, pundit, referendum, and poll has a way of lifting the fog of ambiguous fear. The voices are plentiful.

Yet, the most frequently offered scriptural, spiritual advice is “Be not afraid.” Until we pause, breathe, learn to see what we are doing to ourselves and take a step back from our fear, we will not be able to sort out the plentiful voices. Until we step back from our fear, we will only react. Perhaps it may seem overly simplistic but I think it takes daily prayer and developing your own ability for self-reflection to explore, “Be not afraid.” “Be not afraid” invites us to find places of connection with others and with God. “Be not afraid” says that the connections may come to us in expected and unexpected ways.

If you find yourself overwhelmed, overcome, or reacting, then pause, breath, and pray the words, “Be Not Afraid.” If you meditate or practice centering prayer, try these words as sacred words in one of your meditations times. If you recall a scriptural phrase, then begin one day by using these words. Layer on the next day, then the next day, then the next. Observe if a shift begins within you.

Let’s talk about fear with God. The fog of ambiguous fear cannot be lifted when it is projected onto others. Our clarity of vision will return when we begin with ourselves. Our clarity is within our inner hearts in our life with God. “Be Not Afraid.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Word among the words, a weekly resource

Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post was precise in her point when she reported on June 12 “Three of the most contentious question in American culture and politics – gay rights, gun control, and terrorism- collided in a horrific way in a Orlando nightclub early Sunday.”

Throughout last week sources from each of those perspectives reported, videoed, wrote, cried, grieved, stormed, and voted. Each story focused on one part of these three contentious issues. Yet, I wondered how does a practicing Christian put the three together? I knew it certainly is not based solely on news reports. So, I did what I hoped many other practicing Christians did last Sunday. I went to church. And, I went to church where I knew the preacher would address these questions.

The Sunday sermon I heard didn’t dodge the horrendous grief of the event or the complexity of the issues. The words did not rush to judgment or claim a political stance. In my Christian practice, I support gun control, I support the LGBTQ community, and, I support Muslim citizens in their religious and political freedom. Yet, I was not looking for the preacher to support my beliefs. I was listening for the preacher to make the theological connections among the scripture text for Sunday, the contentious issues, and, our collective experience from last week. In Christian practice, I sought the discipline of biblical interpretation by a sensitive pastor. I listened for ways that other’s understandings coming out of our shared sacred texts and shared experience shaped my life. I listened for my community’s sources to think about these three issues together. That is what a Sunday sermon does. Those connections are what the Sunday preacher offered the congregation.

And, that faith practice of listening to a sermon was happening in millions of congregations all over the nation last weekend. My faith community is Christian so I went on a Sunday. And, in this “Re-Wirement” season of my life, I am able to choose the congregation I attend each Sunday. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday millions of people were listening last weekend for the Word among the words. The only place I know to find the Word among the words in a sermon preached in worshipping community of faith.

Monday, June 13, 2016


To the surprise of many, I announced last January my decision to retire from parish ministry. Since 1986 I served as a parish priest in congregations of different sizes, different locations, different demographics, and different staff configurations. In some parishes I was the curate, the assistant, or, associate. In other congregations I was the rector, or, as one of my key lay leaders used to say "Head Rector." In other words, I was in charge of the spiritual, organizational, programatic, administrative and financial life of the congregation. Mostly recently at St. John's the congregational life included 1,800 parishioners and a day school of three year olds through fifth graders. The organizational guru, Peter Drucker, said that the three most difficult jobs are CEO of a hospital, President of a College or University, and Senior Pastor of a congregation.

Being the personal and public focus of a vital, exciting, committed and ever moving congregation and school is challenging. For every place I wanted to be and for every group or committee I wanted to be with, there were two, three, four or more meeting at the same time. Wonderful clergy staff and exceptional volunteers guided these various groups and the congregation served others, the hungry, the homeless, and offered an incredibly vibrant ministry to children, youth, and adults. I loved the challenge, the relationships, and the leadership of shaping the life of the congregation.

So many were surprised when I retired. I did not retire because I did not want the challenge any more, or the leadership, or the life at St. John's. I retired because there were other challenges I wanted to take on, other leadership I wanted to develop, other ways of learning I wanted to explore. Most importantly, I wanted to share these experiences with my husband, friends, and extended family. If I could have found a way to lead a large congregation, have occasional weekends with my husband, take Italian lessons, travel a little, and write, then I would have continued. Yet, I am an "all in" person. I could not envision not giving my all to the parish.

While I retired from parish ministry, I am rewiring for my next ministry. My next ministry includes learning in new ways. Some of that learning will be lessons, like Italian, taken from others. Some of that learning will be the steeper curve for me and for the church of ministry of relationships that are not primarily based in a congregation. I have not done ministry in this way before, although others have, and I am excited to find out where it takes me.

The most engaging and spiritually deepening seasons of my life have been times when I have been building for the future of the church. Rewiring asks me to build for the next generation without the scaffolding of a parish around me. Rewiring asks me to prioritize and I mean really prioritize not just so that I only think about it but that I really do it. Two hours set aside Monday through Friday for writing. Writing this blog, articles, developing proposals for projects. Two hours at least. Additional structured time to answer emails, network, mentor, and communicate by hand written notes (which I love to do). And then additional time to read, learn Italian, start an organization that will hopefully grow into a Slow Food Chapter for Howard County. Most importantly I have learned in these first six weeks of rewiring is continued time for exercise, yoga, and meditation.

Rewiring is the season of new leadership, new challenge, new structure, and new priorities.
Day to day life is still "practically christian" but now with a different vantage point to see Christ alive in the world.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Public discussion

The public discussion about end of life issues is very prominent this week. The conversation started by Brittany Maynard as she chose to end her life before terminal brain cancer completely claimed her body is unfolding in our workplaces, homes, and among friends. The communication rich world in which we live carries all ages into some dimension of this conversation. Yet, this is a very personal conversation to have - one's wishes and thoughts about death and the time of death. And, it is a conversation that deeply touches our spirituality, our beliefs, and our life in Christ. As a pastor, priest, and as an Episcopalian, I am not taking a stand or teaching an issue. I am opening a door to conversation and prayer. As a pastor, I encourage questions, wonderings, and exploration of our life with God in each day as the way we live faithfully. I asked each member of the clergy team of St. John's to contact members of the ministries in which they are most closely involved. We want the church to be the church among our members. We seek as pastes to be spiritual guides as well as scriptural interpreters when the questions of our life in the world presents itself in important ways. We pray that no member of our parish will need to make the decisions the unfolded in Brittany's life over the last several months. However, we are also aware that we all contemplate the final chapter of life as well as that of our loved ones. "Will you undertake to be a faithful pastor to all whom you are called to serve, laboring together with them and with your fellow ministers to build up the family of God? I will." (from the Ordination of a Priest, Book of Common Prayer Page 532)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Worth writing on our hearts, why church?

Two days ago I reflected on the "We" in the following quote from Stephanie Paulsell, "We need places to pray as if someone were listening, to study as if we might learn something worth writing on our hearts, to join with others in service as if the world might be transformed. Churches are places to learn to practice, with others, a continual conversion of life, a permanent openness to change." Today, my mind - well actually my heart - is dwelling on " study as if we might learn something worth writing on your hearts..." Study often narrows our focus to right information, right ideas, correct side of the ideology spectrum. Study too often is narrowly defined by correcting a deficiency, filling a void, learning to catch up. Study in the church and in community is not to catch up but rather to catch on. Study is to connect information in our minds with our hearts to form us in Christ's life. Study is not a text but a testing of where the goodness of God makes a home in us. As those in church we can and should hold different and diverse ideas in our heads even as we appreciate that those written on our hearts determine who we are.