Thursday, April 29, 2010

Catherine of Siena

In his brief biography of Catherine for today, James Kiefer describes this doctor of the Church as:
(1) a mystic devoted to contemplative prayer;
(2) a humanitarian who, as a nurse, cared for the suffering and the poor;
(3) an activist who did not shy away from speaking truth to power, and;
(4) a counselor to many (including popes).
Not a bad resume! In her own words, two quotes strike me as the unifying theme in her mystical/theological vision. First, these words from Letter T137:
I long to see you so totally ablaze with loving fire that you become one with gentle First Truth. Truly the soul's being united with and transformed into him is like fire consuming the dampness in logs. Once the logs are heated through and through, the fire burns and changes them into itself, giving them it's own color and warmth and power.
And then, from Letter T368:
If you are what you should be, then you will set all Italy ablaze.
One can go a long way on these two statements about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and what it means to be the Church. To be transformed into the Body of Christ is to set our own world ablaze and in some small measure honor this extraordinary woman by becoming a bit more mystical, a bit more compassionate, a bit more activist, and a bit more of a friend to all.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Looking and Seeing, Listening and Hearing

The past month or so has been very busy in our house. Surely we aren't the only ones, but it feels like there has been little time to sit and think, which is central not only for life itself but for the work I do. When I do finally make time for Sabbath, one of the wise ones I turn to for guidance is Mary Oliver.

I've been reading her poem "Look and See" this morning, from the collection entitled Why I Wake Early. It's a great poem that seems to come from her willingness to take Jesus quite literally and "to consider the birds of the air." Oliver has this way of capturing a moment, moments we probably all have but far too often, to paraphrase another of my favorite poets, we "have the experience, but miss the meaning." The last line of "Look and See"is a prayer of thanksgiving, I think:

Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we only look, and see.

The very next poem in that collection is another gem, that begins like this:

I would like to write a poem about the world that has in it
nothing fancy,
But it seems impossible.
Whatever the subject, the morning sun
glimmers it.

Indeed! Reading these poems reminds me of Proverbs 20:12 - "The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord has made them both." Jesus talks a lot like a wisdom teacher or a nature poet when he says things like "let those with eyes, see; and those with ears, hear"--and sometimes the inverse too - that people look but can't seem to see, they listen but can't hear.

Whatever else the Incarnation means, I think it means at least this: we need to pay attention. We need to make time to look, in order to see. We may not write like Mary Oliver but we can practice trying to see through the eyes of a poet and to listen with the ears of a saint. Each day when morning breaks then becomes an oportunity to see and to hear anew and in the process to be re-created in God's own image.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

O God, whom heaven cannot hold, you inspired Christina Rossetti to express the mystery of the Incarnation through her poems: Help us to follow her example in giving our hearts to Christ, who is love; and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Today the Episcopal Church calendar gives us an opportunity to remember the English poet, Christina Rosetti, perhaps most famous for writing the text of the hymn, "In the Bleak Midwinter." With signs of spring all around us in New England, recalling the bleak midwinter is about the last thing I want to do today! And to be perfectly honest, I can take or leave most of the poem, at least until the last verse - which has always seemed inspired to me.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb
If I were a wiseman, I would do my part;
yet what can I give him? Give my heart.
Until reading her brief biography this morning in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, I didn't know that when she was 14, Rossetti suffered a nervous breakdown, which was followed by bouts of depression and related illness. Fourteen! (Knowing this part of her story adds a whole new dimension to those lines about the bleak midwinter, doesn't it?) It was during that period of her life that she and her mother became seriously interested in the Anglo-Catholic movement of the Church of England, which shaped and influenced the woman who was able to so freely give her own heart to Christ. The Oxford movement, as it was called, was not about being "fussy" about worship--it was a renewal movement that called the Church back to the integral connection between worship and mission, so that how we pray and how we act are of one piece. Rosetti volunteered from 1859 to 1870 at the St. Mary Magdalene "house of charity" in Highgate, a refuge for former prostitutes. In spite of her own challenges, Rosetti put herself in a place where she could move beyond herself to a world in need. Giving our heart to Christ means giving our heart to God's people, especially the most vulnerable. They are, of course, two sides to one coin. Giving her heart, in other words, wasn't just a pious slogan; it meant giving her life to Christ as a servant. The ongoing challenge in trying to be the Church remains the same, I think. People come to Church for all kinds of reasons: love and marriage, kids and baptism, death and funerals. People come because they are depressed or lonely or seeking or perhaps grateful and blessed. People come because they've tried everything else. The question is, for me: what happens next? Do we embody the call of Jesus to come and be disciples - not consumers of a religious commodity, but as living members of a living Body? It is sometimes easy to think that we have nothing to give, especially if we are feeling lost or depressed or broken. If we were rich, or smart, or holy, or famous we could do so much. What can we do, poor as we are? We can give our hearts, because where our hearts are, so will our bodies and minds and hands be also. And if our hearts are with Christ, they will always take us more deeply into a world in need.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mark and John

The parish I serve, and the wider world of which it is a part, lost two bright lights this week. As their pastor, I was privileged to share with them and their families those final hours of their lives here on earth. I pray that Mark and John may both rest in peace, and I pray for their widows, Jane and Gloria, and for their children and grandchildren.

It is weeks like the one I am in the midst of that make me most aware of both the costs and the joys of living out one's vocation as a pastor. For any ordained person reading this, I suspect this claim requires very little explanation, but as I imagine my readers (many of whom remain unknown to me in this media) I imagine that most of the experience you have with death and dying is that which touches you most directly. Clergy are not the only professionals who deal with death, clearly. But the role is unique and different from even that of healthcare professionals or funeral directors in that it moves through these hours of death to the planning of a funeral and to the celebration of a life and burial over the course of days or even weeks.

It is exhausting (and this is not a complaint!) because it all takes time, as anyone who has sat by a loved one's bedside knows. Mark was in a hospital over an hour away and John in a nursing home about a half-hour away. To gather family together to anoint and pray and listen, especially when two funerals come close together as these have takes a toll physically, emotionally, and spiritually. At 10 p.m. on Friday night, after attending a Shabbat service at a local synagogue with some of our confirmands, I drove to Leicester to be with John and his family. (The day had begun around 6 a.m. with a call from Jane that Mark had died about an hour earlier.) Driving through the winding country roads of Massachusetts the light in my car went on to warn me that I needed gas. I knew two things as my heart began to race a bit faster: that there was ONE gas station between me and where I was heading that MIGHT be open or MIGHT be closed, and that given the mileage I can get once that light goes on and the distance I had to cover both ways, if it was closed I MIGHT make it home or I MIGHT run out of gas. (Turned out the gas station was open.)

And I started laughing, out loud, alone in my car because I thought it was about as apt a metaphor as I could think of, or that God had given me. I was on empty myself. I was sleep deprived, I had my own grief for the loss of these two fine men, I had not eaten with my family for a couple of days, but in the worst possible way of eating drive-through food on my lap. I was out of fuel and no one knew that better than my wife, because by the time I was home and let my guard down I had nothing left to give.

And yet...

There is an amazing grace in such moments that is it's own "fuel." On empty, you know that you rely on God's grace alone, and the prayers of others. I certainly don't mean literally that God makes a gas station be open! I think God is occupied with weightier matters than that. I do mean, however, quite literally that when we are spiritually on empty, God finds a way to make up the difference. I knew as I drove to be with John and his family that I am supported by a community of prayer, a community that does "get it" that pastoral ministry takes its toll on pastors and their families. I found myself thinking about how sad it is to face death without faith. And even with strong faith, how hard it is without a communal dimension to that faith. I began to feel a sense of peace that passes all understanding even (or maybe because) all of the spiritual gauges that can measure such things were on empty.

And there is an amazing grace and privilege to watch families come together, even in the midst of pain and sorrow and some regret, to say goodbye to people whom they love. There is beauty and holiness to be invited in to the most intimate moments of life. A few times in my life (outside of the birth of my own children) I have been with families as they celebrate the birth of a child. But given the length of stays these days, those moments have actually been few and far between. Dying is another matter altogether. And I never feel more like a priest, more "called" than when I am able to offer the prayers of the Church in the midst of such moments. They are, in and of themselves, fuel that sustains me for the work I have been given to do. It is work that cannot and should not be delegated--everything else I do in a week including preparing a sermon can be rearranged, and needs to be in weeks like this. In so doing I find myself in a very thin place, where God is palpable.

Life and death. Birth and rebirth. Even at the grave we make our song - alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Monday, April 12, 2010


I recently stumbled upon this website which I invite you to check out:

I've been trying to become more aware, and more intentional, about civility in a culture that I experience as increasingly polarized and even hostile. I have on occasion been misunderstood by my friends both on the left and on the right in this desire for more civility: it can sound like a naive Rodney King "why can't we all get along?" statement. But that is not really what I mean, or even yearn for.

I don't think civility is a synonym for always being "nice"- especially at the expense of finding the Truth. And the Truth is not always somewhere "in the middle"--sometimes one person is right and another is just wrong. Sometimes a political or theological claim is right and another is wrong and we can get stuck in the mud of trying to find "reconciliation" between two extreme views, when what we need to do is "stick to our guns" and take a stand. We don't have to, and should not, sacrifice The Truth (or "our" truths) to be civil and "reconciliation" that splits the difference is probably cheap grace.

I do think it may be a close synonym for being polite and kind and especially humble. Even when we say that there may be a right answer, it is not a given that we are in the right and those on the other side are wrong. We may discover, in fact, that we are the one who is misinformed. As a Christian, I promise on a regular basis to respect the dignity of every human person. As a Christian, I have been commanded to love even my enemies. I think at a bare minimum this requires civility.

I am a person with pretty strong opinions, both theologically and politically. Many, but by no means all of those positions, could be described as "liberal." I tend to be fairly moderate on fiscal and economic issues and more "traditional" (or at least cautious) in some areas of theology than even some of my closest friends sometimes realize. (Certainly this is true with my liturgical sensibilities!) Ultimately I believe that there is much that is good and worth "conserving" in the theological and political traditions we have inherited from those who have gone before us and that is, as I understand it, the root meaning of "conservative." My experience tells me that I am not alone in being ambiguous: none of us are monolithic nor as "knee jerk" as the media would have us believe. Life is complicated, and so are most people I know.

But I am proudly a "liberal" in many areas because I do believe that the Bible reveals a God who speaks on behalf of the poor and asks us to do the same. I believe that all human beings (and not just the ones who look like me) are created in God's own image--regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. I enthusiastically celebrate the gains that have been made in Civil Rights over the past fifty years and cringe at the thought of turning back the clock on any of those. (When the parish I serve was founded, women were not only not ordained, but not allowed to serve on the Vestry. These were the "good old days?" For whom exactly? Never mind, I know the answer to that question!) Being open to change, open to God's liberating Spirit and the new thing that is unfolding is an act of faith and that, too, should be celebrated. The real challenge is one of discernment: what needs to be conserved and where do we need to make progress? We need each other, I think, to figure that out in a complex world.

Having political and theological convictions (whether they are liberal, moderate, or conservative--even when they are very passionately held) does not give me nor anyone a right to be uncivil. In fact, I try to cultivate friendships with people who hold very different convictions than I. Sometimes I try to convince them I am right. Sometimes they help me to see where I am wrong. Sometimes we agree to disagree. Sometimes we even get mad at each other. But rarely are we rude to each other, because we have a relationship and the relationship tempers what we choose to say or not say. We can, as our President likes to say, "disagree without being disagreeable."

I worry that the very medium I am using as I think these thoughts contributes to the intensity of the erosion of civility in what is left of our civilization. It is way too easy to post a comment on someone's Facebook page or respond to a blog or email with hostility and arrogance in part, I think, because it is such a dis-embodied media. Without relationship, there is no room for nuance; no room for gray; no room for "I don't know" or "I'm not sure." No room for a shrug or a smile or another round of beers. (Emoticons are a feeble substitute!)

On healthcare reform, there are clearly some very strong opinions out there. That is healthy for democacy and at our best, it seems to me we are continuing to wrestle with issues that are part of the fabric of this great nation, particularly around the size of the federal government and what properly belongs to Washington, DC, state capitols, local communities and the private sector. At our worst, however, an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind. I guess I am conservative enough in my doctrine of human sin to worry about the real possibility that if we are not careful we will all end up blind.

Friday, April 9, 2010


True confessions: I am not one of those priests who went into the ordained ministry to join a "helping profession." I know this is sacrilege, but it also happens to be true.

I felt called to the priesthood for many of the same reasons I had previously felt called to be a lawyer and/or go into politics: because I felt that the gospel is about changing the world. As the Chair of the Commission on Ministry for five years now, I realize I am in a bit of a unique category here. I meet so many people who feel called to be much "nicer" than I am, and they are.

This is by way of saying that when I began my ordained life, visiting the elderly, especially those living in Nursing Homes, felt to me more of a "job" than a calling. It felt like something a good pastor should do; not something that I got terribly excited about.

I am not sure when all of that changed for me exactly, but sometime in the past few years it most definitely has. It is my practice to carve out the week after Christmas and Easter to visit the eldest members of my parish, members who cannot be with us for our highest holy days. I take along a gift bag put together by members of the parish and I celebrate Holy Communion with them.

Somewhere along the line this stopped feeling like a burden and became one of the greatest "perks" of my vocation. Today I drove to Beverly, Mass--on the northshore--about an hour and a half or so from Holden. There I had the incredible gift of being able to sit and chat with a 96 year-old woman named Marion whom it is impossible not to love. She is an extraordinary person who once sang in the choir and never missed church in her life. Even today, you walk into her room and it is filled with signs of the parish she still feels connected with more than six years after she has moved away from Holden. There are newsletters, bulletins, photos, crosses, sermons from St. Francis Church littering the room.

Marion was, at her peak, about 4 feet 10 inches and is now about 4 feet 5 inches. She is the only person who ever asked my wife if she could reach something in the grocery store that she could not; my wife is barely five foot zero! We sat and visited and talked. We shared Holy Communion. She was my last visit this week, a week that included so many other extraordinary saints as well.

I think that what has changed for me is that she isn't just some old lady. She is this amazing person who is wise and kind and still "with it." When my kids were little, she was the "gum lady." She came to church every week with sugar-free gum for any child she saw. I don't know how that started or why; I just know that kids loved to see her. And these days so do I...

Marion told me today that it is frustrating sometimes to sit with a bunch of "old people" (I think she is the second oldest person in the community where she lives!) because she tells them something and then an instant later they forget and she can either tell them again or just let it drop. She says this with no malice; it is simply a description of her daily life.

Here is the thing: I get paid to go visit people like this! I get a chance to sit and listen and enjoy the company of people who have lived the span of a century. Who knew this would be part of the great joy I find in the work God has given me to do? It's not just a job, it truly is an adventure--and an incredible gift.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

On The Road Again

Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the Bread. The story of Jesus meeting the two disciples on their way to Emmaus remains my very favorite Easter encounter. (Good old "doubting" Thomas is a close second!) I love the "code language" that Luke builds into the story: they are "on The Way," the name by which the earliest Christians were known before they were ever called Christians. (Not only does this suggest to me that the story is a never-ending one about disciples in every generation, but also that discipleship is in motion, and not static!) Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the Bread--all Eucharistic verbs. The Eucharistic theology of the newer liturgies returns us to these Easter roots of worship, rather than simply remembering a "last supper." Whenever our "hearts burn" as we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture--whenever our hearts burn because the sermon touches us and inspires us to think and act in new ways, Christ is present. Whenever our eyes our opened and we behold the Risen Christ in our midst, Easter happens. I guess that is what I like about this story so much. We can't go back and peak in the empty tomb. But we can be part of a bread-breaking community where Christ still "deigns to be our guest." We can be part of a community that knows and celebrates the fact that Christ meets us where we are, and walks beside us every step of the Way.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Finding Our Way to Easter Faith

Perhaps the most truthful claim any of us can ever make, especially on Easter morning, is “I believe; help my unbelief.”

I wonder if Easter morning isn’t harder for people who are questioning their faith than Christmas Eve? Everybody knows about birth. Even if you aren’t sure who Jesus’ daddy is, you can still sing those carols in December and celebrate silent and holy nights and that beautiful child. I’m not saying that is all that Christmas means; just that there is an access point.

But Easter remains a great mystery: what does it really mean to say that someone died and was raised again? What does it mean to say that this man’s living and dying frees us to be alive to God? I think that Easter faith begins not by offering easy answers to such questions but to love the questions enough to allow them to lead us to a deeper truth. Perhaps the best place to begin is by being honest that there is not a cookie-cutter path offered in the Bible to Easter faith; no single formula for embracing the Paschal mystery. For me it is helpful to notice that the gospels give us a variety of narratives and not one simple formula. In fact, John’s Gospel gives us no less than five different Easter encounters, the first two at the empty tomb itself.

(1) The story of the Beloved Disciple running into the empty tomb: the narrator tells us that “when he went in, he saw, and believed.”

(2) The story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with a man she believes at first to be the gardener, until he speaks her name and she knows it is him.

On the heels of these two stories, we’ll hear next weekend about good old “doubting” Thomas, whom I’d rather call “seeing-is-believing” Thomas or “me-too” Thomas. He just wants the same chance to see and touch and experience the risen Christ first- hand that the others got. Then there will be the disciples back on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, who experience Christ by a charcoal fire at breakfast. And of course Peter, who later that same morning is asked three times: “Peter, do you love me?” Three times because...well that part is pretty obvious. John’s Gospel ends by saying something along these lines:

There are so many other stories I could tell you, the world itself could not contain all the books that would be written if I did: but hopefully these are enough so that you might find and be found by God.

Beyond John, there are additional stories in the synoptic gospels. My personal favorite is found in the Gospel of Luke, on the road to Emmaus. The disciples experience Christ “in the breaking of the bread”—which suggests to me that they must have been Episcopalians.

My point is simply that each of the disciples had to discover the meaning of Easter in their own time, and the gospels seem to be making the point that there is not one right way to Easter faith. The two vignettes that we get today may or may not speak to us where we are; but since Easter takes fifty days to unpack and not just one, stay tuned! There is lots more to come as the journey toward Pentecost continues. It takes time to find our way to Easter faith, and even longer to become an Easter people.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Washing Feet

Then, Jesus "rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded." (John 13:4-5)

We remember today that Jesus not only gives us a new commandment, to love one another, but that he calls us friends. Yes, he is still master and lord, but by choosing to be our friend and our brother he shows us how to be more faithful members of his one holy, catholic, and apostolic Body. He asks us to see ourselves—ordained and lay, paid staff and volunteers, young and old, male and female—as his friends.

Sandra Schneiders has pointed out that friendship holds within it the seeds of radical transformation, because it lets us “build bridges over chasms of ideological, religious, racial, and social conflicts.” Such friendships are not easy to cultivate or to maintain; they take work and are rare. But the polarized world we are living in needs for us to get this now more than ever if we really do mean to be living members of Christ’s Body and not simply nominal Christians.

The power of this witness as servants cannot be overestimated. I don’t anticipate Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner washing each other’s feet anytime soon. (And if they do, I’m not sure I want to witness it!) But I had a chance, once upon a time, to sit in a room with Senator George McGovern, who spoke about his close friendship in the U.S. Senate with Senator Barry Goldwater. For those of you who aren’t political junkies like me, they were on opposite sides of most issues, and very rarely voted together on anything remotely controversial. But at the end of the day they’d go out to a bar near the Capitol and have a beer together and talk about their families. In so doing they could disagree without de-humanizing those on the other side of the aisle, without calling into question one another’s patriotism, or values or birthplace or integrity. Even though that was less than fifty years ago, it feels like a distant galaxy, far, far away.

In congregations like the one I serve, however, we have the potential to deepen friendships with those who may be as just as far apart on the issues of the day, both theological and political. In washing feet, sharing the Eucharist together, gathering together for soup in Lent or a potluck supper; knitting or singing or praying or studying together, we bear witness to the world. See how they love one another; not because they are ideologically aligned and maybe not even because they always like each other; but because their Lord has commanded it. That kind of witness has the potential to change the world.