Advent Day 21: Closet Pagan

A few years back I was sitting in the break room of NYU Langone Hospital with a colleague who was a rabbinical student (now, I’m happy to report, she is a full-fledged Rabbi – but at the time, she was still in school.)

She asked me, very plainly, what it was that I loved about Christianity, aside from the teachings of Jesus. It was such a perfectly genuine and open question, exactly the kind of place any real inter-religious dialogue should start. What did I love about the religious tradition that had developed around the teachings?

I hesitate for a moment and replied, “I love the pagan-ness of it.”

She looked surprised, as Jewish/Christian/Muslim traditions are not typically known to embrace the pagan strands that run through them. In fact, we’re more known for denying those strands and insisting that our religious traditions were a response to the excesses of “pagan” (I use the term very broadly) traditions.

”What do you mean?” she asked.

I could have answered with some theology around the incarnation of Christ – just as I could write about that now if I wasn’t in kind of a hurry and not quite awake enough to think it all through – but instead I just said, “well, look at Christmas. We still even have Christmas songs about the “Yuletide,” which is totally an ancient pagan holiday.”

I wasn’t connecting with any of the morning prayer readings today, and (full disclosure) I’m coming down with some kind of virus. So I let myself off the hook and decided to sit with one of the Canticles for today. Then I realized that today is that holy pagan day, the winter solstice. So that sealed the deal – and this is Canticle 12.

Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord, 
O heavens and all waters above the heavens.

Sun and moon and stars of the sky, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, every shower of rain and fall of dew, 
all winds and fire and heat.

Winter and Summer, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold, 
drops of dew and flakes of snow.

Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O nights and days, 
O shining light and enfolding dark.

Storm clouds and thunderbolts, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

II The Earth and its Creatures

Let the earth glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills,
and all that grows upon the earth, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O springs of water, seas, and streams, 
O whales and all that move in the waters.

All birds of the air, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O beasts of the wild, 
and all you flocks and herds.

O men and servants of the Lord, 

praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O spirits and souls of the righteous, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

You that are holy and humble of heart, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Back when I was in college, and had decided I was finished with the church and Christianity, one of the moments that brought me back was hearing a homily at a church (where I had a gig!) about the doctrine of Creation and the idea that the cosmos is infused with the “self” of the Creator the same way a piece of art is infused with the “self” of the artist. That every tree, every flower, every spider and ant and cell and atom and great burning star and human baby and giraffe and stray cat and cuttlefish and snowfall and grain of sand were not “just” made of some impersonal “matter,” not just “stuff, but they mattered,  they disclosed something of the Sacred Nature of this world and this cosmos.

It changed the world for me, and it changed me, because it changed how I saw everything.

It changed how I saw myself. That’s taken longer to manifest, but this year – about 20+ years later – I’m starting to see how my soul can “magnify the Lord,” too.

Thanks be to God!

Advent Day 20: Vocation and emptiness

I find myself, at this early hour on a Friday morning in December, tempted to fall into approaching these morning blurbs like sermons. For those of you who read these but do not ever find yourself in a pulpit, the difference might not be so obvious – it’s not obvious to me all the time, either, except in how I feel on the inside as I’m writing. So I almost made today’s reading from the Gospel, the story of the 3 workers with their talents. But I’m just too accustomed to approaching that text as a preacher and I don’t want to do that here.

I think if I could sum up the difference between preaching and blogging, for me, it’s that when I’m working on a sermon, I’m always thinking about how different people in the congregation might hear it (not necessarily real people, but thinking of all the different places people are at on Sunday mornings.) There is so much variety in most congregations that it takes some careful thought and intention.

But here my main audience is… well, me. I’m not thinking about being palatable or applicable to anyone here. I’m just writing what comes to mind and not worryIng about the rest. I write on my blog for fun and for my own spiritual development – I open it up for the internet to read because the best (and possible all real) spiritual growth happens in community.

With that in mind, here’s the excerpt I’m centered on this morning, from the book of Isaiah:

For as rain and snow fall from the heavens 
and return not again, but water the earth,

Bringing forth life and giving growth, 
seed for sowing and bread for eating,

So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; 
it will not return to me empty;

But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, 
and prosper in that for which I sent it.

So I’ve been raised in a theological tradition that asserts that God is and loves truth. Truth sets us free. Where I have experience truth as both the hardest to embrace and simultaneously the most freeing is around the beginning and end of life – birth and death. Often we so badly want to believe that we are deathless and infinite. That we have always been and always will be. That there is no real ending or beginning.

It’s possible. I have no idea what’s actually true about human finiteness, but as I said, I was raised in a strand of theology that teaches that true freedom comes from embracing even the most difficult truths. That instead of trying to drown out the fact that we are born and we die, we begin and we end, we find joy in embracing the truth that we are small, very limited in perception, unable to ever really see the “whole picture,” and, yes, finite. We all will end.

That might sound depressing, but I will be really honest here: when I am able to embrace all of that is when I feel the most free, the most grateful, the most hopeful.

This morning I am thinking about this in terms of my vocations as a musician, a writer, a pastor and a teacher. I have often jokingly referred to the work I do in the world as the least valuable – believe me, kids, majoring in music and religion is not the way to go if you’re looking for professional “success” as we usually understand it. I am almost 40 and I can honestly say that these past 2-3 years have been the first time in my life I have gotten to do meaningful work and had enough to comfortably live and in fact prosper (prosper meaning: start to sack money away for my kid’s college education.)

I have at times had one or the other – meaningful work or enough money – but never, until very recently, both. Mostly I’ve had meaningful work.

I’ve struggled against my vocation. I’ve tried many times to do something, anything else with my life – something that would come with a salary and benefits, something that would be easy and have a path charted out for me. But here’s the reality: I am actually really bad at most things that fall into those categories. So at one point I had to choose: am I going to do something in which I have talent, something God has clearly created me to do, and embrace the risk and the pitfalls of it? Or am I going to choose instead to not contribute all that much to the world by dedicating my life to doing things I am not very good at and don’t find joy in?

This was greatly complicated, for me, by the fact that it was hard for me to make the case to myself that my vocations actually did do some good in the world. You know? The world is burning, and I’m a f*cking poet? I play the stupid harp? I pray with people?

OMG, couldn’t God have given me some more useful gifts in the world? Something that could actually change things? Or hey, something where I could actually support my family?

But at some point, over many years, I had to embrace my finiteness in regards to my vocation. I had to trust, in some sense, that the words of Isaiah were true – that the Divine Energy of the cosmos that had brought me into being for these fleeting moments knew what they were doing. That that energy would not send me into the world, made the way I am, for no reason. I may not ever or always be able to see it, but God’s word never comes back empty. It’s a powerful thing – Take that risk to give yourself, your true self, to the world, and you will be a blessing here. In the most basic sense, this isn’t about playing harp or writing or pastoring or whatever it is you do. It’s simply about being actually and fully present to the other humans and beings around you, and actually being willing to take the risk to see them and let them see you.

I think about the multitudes – the majority, really – of the world who lack the privilege and access to do things like dedicate time and money to learning a musical instrument or writing poetry or doing whatever needs to be done to really live out and fulfill their vocation. The people who are born into circumstances that make even the development of empathy so hard or impossible. And it’s true: we are finite but we are also dreadfully powerful when it comes to squashing or annihilating the possibilities for our fellow humans. I don’t know what to make of that in the grand cosmic equation except to say that vocation is never an individualistic “I need to find myself” kind of thing. Our vocations come out in our communion with one another and our vocations need to be supported – and when we squash the vocation of someone else, we are also in some way limiting or withering away our own. We do not exist except in communion and community with one another – and this, too, is one of those difficult truths we can either run from and insist on living in denial, or we can learn to embrace it and find deeper freedom than we could have ever found on our own.

Thanks be to God.

 

Advent Day 19: Means and Ends

OK, I’m going to be honest here: this morning as I sat down to read, all I could think about was the gall of Congressman Loudermilk to assert that our sitting President has received less fair treatment than… wait for it… Jesus.

I have never been one to follow political theater. I think it’s mostly a distraction from the work that matters most. I also don’t get upset about irreverence and am not really all that uptight about the sanctity of religious language.

But let me tell you- when I read his quote, I was… horrified. Angry. Disgusted. Did Jesus offend people? Oh yes. Plenty. But there is absolutely nothing in common between the way Jesus offended people and way Donald Trump offends people. Was Jesus given a sham trial? Absolutely. Is there anything in common between the “trial” Trump has “endured” and what Jesus endured? Or the reasons why they have been tried?

No. Nothing. There is no comparison to be made, and it really, greatly offends me as a Christian, a pastor, and a human being that this kind of comparison would be made. It is – I hesitate to even use the word – blasphemy.

Luckily, the psalm for this morning had some room for my anger. Here’s an excerpt:

Psalm 50

But to the wicked God says:
“What right have you to recite my statutes,
or take my covenant on your lips?
For you hate discipline,
and you cast my words behind you.
You make friends with a thief when you see one,
and you keep company with adulterers.

“You give your mouth free rein for evil,
    and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your kin;
    you slander your own mother’s child.
These things you have done and I have been silent;
    you thought that I was one just like yourself.
But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.

The line that got me here was “You thought that I was one just like yourself.”

I hear God saying here, “Uh-uh. No way. Don’t pin that sh*t on me.”

Far be it from me to know the mind of God, but I feel like God might respond similarly to Congressman Loudermilk.

As I was making breakfast this morning I was thinking over my rage response to this comment. I assume that Mr. Loudermilk is a Christian. We all know that Christian evangelical were and are integral to the success Trump has found as a politician. It has been a mystery to me how evangelicals are able to look at Trump and actually think he is chosen by God in some way. It seems so clear to me that he is a complete charlatan, totally unsuited for any kind of public service and completely incapable of rising to the occasion. To say nothing of the face that he has no principles – none except, “Donald Trump.” I don’t know how evangelicals, who have always valued so much the faith of their president, can actually believe that Trump sincerely is a Christian or believes in anything but himself.

But it dawned on me as I was in the kitchen this morning: of course Trump makes sense in Christian evangelicalism. Evangelicalism, by and large, is a “means to an end” theology. God made his own son suffer for other people’s mistakes – horrible, but a means to an end – the end being our salvation. God commanded genocides before the time of Christ – horrible, sure, but necessary to bring about the will of God. Lots of native Americans were brutally killed when the Europeans colonized the Americas – terrible, but the means to the end of the “Kingdom of God.” And Trump? Sure, children are being kept in cages at our border; sure, hate crimes are rising; sure, wealth inequality is growing. All sad, but a necessary means to an end: stacking the court with pro-life judges.

This makes me angry and makes me sad, but I know it’s all rooted in that means-to-an-end theology that evangelicals embrace around the death and resurrection of Jesus. The death of an innocent man is sad, but God uses horrific means to achieve wonderful results.

I hate all of this. I hate that this thought is endemic in such powerful strands of Christianity. I hate that by and large Christianity has ceded its theological imagination to the rich and powerful and that so many of us have forgotten that the means are the ends.

And I’m struggling today with my evangelical siblings. I refuse to think of them any other way: they are my siblings. Along with my Jewish siblings, and Muslim sibling, and Hindu and Buddhist and atheist siblings. So much of what Jesus taught broke down the entire us/them worldview. And while it’s so tempting to toss that out – can’t I just hate those other people, those evangelicals who are not related to me at all (sad, but a means to an end? The means to a more just and loving world?) – I know that if I believe what I’m saying here, I cannot. There is no us and them – that’s a lie and an illusion and, I often believe, the source of evil in the world.

So I will continue to say, “siblings” and know that we are all on our own paths. I will continue to argue and teach against a theology that I see as violent and blasphemous both in my words and my deeds. But I will not give in to the temptation to think of Congressman Loudermilk as “other.” Or Trump as “other.” I will try, with all my heart, to make my means become my ends.

Pray for me, and for all of us. This is no easy calling.

Advent Day 18: When the deserts bloom

But this, too, is also real.

These were the words of my spiritual director, a wonderful wise woman of Jewish (Reconstructionist) background, several years ago when I found myself just stepping out of several years – more than a decade, actually – of loss, life upheaval, and trauma.

I was at a writing workshop in a beautiful part of Minnesota, and I had woken up to the sound of leaves rustling outside my window. After a few years spent in NYC, where the sound of tree leaves rustling is most often buried under the sounds of human travel, industry and interaction – the soft sound had brought me to tears.

Tears. Not tears of joy, but tears of, “what if I allow myself to love that sound again?”

What if I remember what it’s like to be in love with being alive again? What if I can’t turn away from it?

Anyone who has struggled with depression or PTSD or anxiety knows that one of the hardest things about being in those spaces is the loss of ability to see or experience beauty and goodness in the world. Everything that was once good turns to dust, and the only thing that feels real is darkness.

Even after we leave that acute phase, it can take years and decades to start to trust our own perceptions of goodness in the world; to trust that an experience of beauty or love or even just feeling “ok” is not a cruel trick of the universe, a lure meant to pull us down into the pit again.

That truth that my spiritual director spoke: that the beauty, too, is also real – has taken me years to begin to internalize.

In truth, I’m not sure I ever believed it, deep in my bones. I’m getting much better at it.

The scripture I’m looking at today is from this past Sunday’s readings, from the book of Isaiah chapter 35:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

Most of the readings in Advent so far have been about the tearing down of the old (to make room for the new, of course, but still – tearing down of the old) and have been a real mix of beauty and terror. To be sure, this Isaiah reading continues and gets more into the doom and gloom. But I wanted to allow myself this morning to just hold these few lines close to my heart. The desert is desiccated and dangerous; the desert also blooms. Both are true. The blooming, too, is also real.

The desert will not always bloom. My life, which feels so miraculously good right now, will at some point go into painful upheaval again. This is the way of life for those of us who try to actually live. The Lord giveth, the Lord also taketh away. I know that. But I am now healed enough to see and revel in the blooming desert, even to enjoy the flowers of my life without also carrying the deep distrust that this, too, is just an illusion.

No. This, too, is also real.

And in our world, our country. Developments in the last several years have been dangerous in a way I don’t think I’ve lived through before. The hatred, the xenophobia, the trampling of the poor, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, the wanton destruction of the planet that is our home. This is all real.

But real also are the miracles of the ways that people have always and will always, I believe, continue to work across difference for the good of others. Real also are the amazing teachers my son has been blessed with this year. Real also are the ways that therapists and other mental health professionals witness their clients finding ways to heal and find joy again. Real also are the first responders who continue to rush headfirst every day into crisis and trauma. Real also are the species who have been brought back from the brink of extinction and the land and water that is being cleaned. Real also are the kids who make sure that the new kid isn’t sitting alone, that the queer kid isn’t bullied, that the special needs kid is given respect by others.

We all know that the world is falling apart. But the desert is always also blooming, and that, too, is also real.

Advent Day 17: Cathedrals and Ice Storms

It is a cold, wet and rainy day in NYC, not my favorite kind of day to get up early and walk the dog and my son to school. On my walk home, though, I was surprised by the joy of seeing the tree branches along our otherwise not-very-beautiful street lined with ice. It made the noisy street suddenly feel like part of a magical princess fairyland, only better because the beauty was simple and real. What a gift.

It reminded me, too, of the ice storm on 1995 in Philadelphia. I remember it well, mainly because at age 15 it was amazing to get a random 2.5 weeks off of school. It was “just ice,” yes, but several inches of it lined trees and roads and power lines, causing just about everyone to lose power and heat for days and weeks. And the snow that had come right before the ice had tapped out the area’s salt supplies, leaving the city was entirely out of treatments for the roads. The entire place was shut down until the temperatures lifted enough to start the melting process. No one went to work or school – only first responders were allowed on the roads. I think it was the first time I felt the real powerlessness of humanity in the face of nature.

The reading I’m looking at today is from the daily office, from the book that is both my most and least favorite in the entire Christian canon. Here it is:

Revelation 3:17-21

For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

I am both excited about and dreading writing about this little excerpt (the book of Revelations has this hot/cold effect on me, I suppose) – excited because man, there is some real truth spoken here. Dreading it because I feel like parsing out why I feel like there’s so much truth here would require a lot more time than I’ve committed to giving these little Advent blurbs. It feels like walking through a minefield, talking about the wealthy and the privileged being wretched and pitiable. There are so many ways that words and ideas can be twisted in this sort of place, like walking through a theological and sociological hall of mirrors.

What I can say is this: The book of Revelations is not alone in the Judeo-Christian scriptures in naming the spiritual poverty that can come with privilege, wealth and power. It is often the case, our scriptures suggest, that those who have power in our world lose sight of their identity, their despair, and their hope.

I think of chasing goals of wealth and power like trying to build a fortress around oneself to keep out anxiety, suffering, despair, and fear. But honestly, it never works. The only thing those kinds of fortresses do is distract or help us forget about our own suffering and despair. And often, forgotten suffering and despair rears its head in how we negate or deny the suffering and despair of others.

Now. Why does that matter? Can’t the rich deal with their own despair while they enjoy all the other privileges? Why should we be concerned about the rich? Jesus, after all, definitely seemed more aligned with the poor.

Here’s what I’m thinking now: because we cannot align ourselves with the poor unless we also acknowledge the ways in which we are poor. That’s what I see in this powerful excerpt from Revelations: God is saying, basically: you think you’ve transcended human frailty by building up your fortresses of privilege and power. But you’re not. And the sooner you realize that you are intertwined with every single human being on this planet, the sooner you realize that you, too, are frail and at the mercy of forces far greater than yourself, the sooner you will be living in truth. It’s gonna hurt – it always hurts to embrace our finitude and humanity – but it is also going to bring you joy, because you will no longer be alone.

Maybe that’s why when I start to see snow fall or gusts of wind blow I have always felt a tinge of relief alongside the anxiety. Maybe that’s why when I saw, for example, the Notre Dame Cathedral burning, I felt hope alongside the sadness. Maybe that’s why when I look back at the few times in my life when I have been razed to the ground and really did not know if there was going to be a future, I can feel gratitude for who I am now even though I would never give thanks for the experiences themselves. Maybe truth always hurts but also always opens up access to our own hearts.

Something like that, anyway.

Thanks be to God!

Advent Day 16: A wild patience

Be patient. Do you remember how awful those words were when you were a kid? Maybe you still hate them. Patience is not for the faint of heart.

I have been having a lot of conversations with my son (12 years old) recently about patience, in particular about how patience relates to practicing his trumpet. My son is a wonderful social butterfly in most spaces, and has always naturally expressed care for the world and those around him. But he has never naturally had anything approaching a work ethic or desire to be challenged. So sitting down to practice trumpet – which means, sitting down to do things you are bad at now but will be good at in a short time if you work at it – is often the site of much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Just last week I found myself saying to him, “Luke, you need to stop being surprised by your inability to play everything perfectly when you sit down to practice. If you already knew how to play everything perfectly your teacher would not have assigned you this lesson.

It makes rational sense. He gets it in a cognitive way. But he is only starting to understand in his heart what real patience is, and isn’t anywhere near understanding what patience with oneself means. (As with most children, he definitely understands what it’s like for people to lose patience with him. But that’s not all that helpful.)

The text I’m looking at today, about patience, is from the RCL readings for yesterday – this one is from the 5th chapter of James.

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

I was probably 14 or 15 when I took my first step to understanding patience in a deeper way – for me, like for my son, it was in regards to my musical practice. Something snapped and all of a sudden I was willing and able to submit to the work of growth.

But it wasn’t really until I was in my mid-thirties that I started to really understand the wild patience (in the beloved words of Adrienne Rich) of relational growth, the untamed patience of grief and loss, the downright frightening patience of being present to another human being. I have to thank my time as a chaplain for cultivating that in me.

One of the first things that is often addressed in CPE (the training for chaplaincy) is the desire to fix another human being. Especially for those of us in helping professions, this is a temptation – to swoop in and solve someone else’s problem. But that is not the work of a chaplain. Fixing things is necessary and awesome work – think of, say, the Geek Squad that swoops in to make the computer system run again, or the exterminator who comes to my apartment once a month (God bless him), or the woman on the other end of the line who was so blessedly helpful to me in figuring out my student loan payment situation. These are people who can and do fix things, and the world cannot do without them.

But neither can the world do without people who have cultivated the wild patience necessary to accompany someone through loss, or death, or despair, or anxiety, or growth, or change. Those of us who have been through these things know that there absolutely is no “fixing” them. They have to happen, they have to be worked through, walked through, and endured. Anyone who tries to “fix” these things just ends up leaving the other person alone in it.

No one can learn this wild patience of presence-with-another unless they have also practiced patience with themselves and their own processes; unless they have endured their own anxieties and despairs. It is, like the writer of James alludes to, a strength. It is a muscle that needs to be continually used to stay strong.

I often catch myself trying to “fix” the silliest of things. At church, this might be: “fix” Sunday school so everyone is happy. “Fix” the Christmas pageant so our program looks good and strong. “Fix” the people who are unhappy with changes that are happening. “Fix” Sunday morning so it’s less stressful, “fix” the budget so there’s no more conflict around it.

In my family, this looks like: “fix” my son so he practices trumpet without throwing a fit. “Fix” the broken relationships that define my extended family. “Fix” the frustration that rears it’s head between my partner and my son. “Fix” myself so that I can be present at all times to everyone who wants my attention in my family. “Fix” myself so no one gets angry anymore.

It’s yucky stuff, really, this fixing. Fixing works for broken furniture and burned out lightbulbs. Fixing doesn’t work for people and families and relationships and churches. I’m not even sure it works for the world at large. What works for people is presence.  And presence is hard. The hardest thing I have ever had to learn, for sure – and am still learning, and will always continue to learn. Submitting to this work – the wild work of patience and the wild work of waiting – is core to spiritual formation and growth, and, like most if not all Christian formation and growth, cannot be done alone.

Today I’m giving thanks for all of those people who have helped me grow in this way, in this wild, untamed strength of patience.

Advent Day 15: I will disappoint

I am home this afternoon after a long and fun day at church: Christmas pageant day. I write the scripts for the pageants and plays we do at my church (mostly because I can’t find anything that fits the bill for our congregation) and so while they are always scripts in which dry humor abounds, I have at times wondered if a real message is getting through.

But today I took a risk and asked the actors (in the 10-and-under set) what they thought they’d be teaching the congregation today. A boy raised his hand and said, “That Jesus is still being born every day.” And so I thought: ok. That’s a win. The dry humor is ok. The script is ok.

All that to say I don’t have a ton of inner fuel right now to devote to the very complicated scriptures that consistently comprise our readings for Advent. But the Gospel reading today is one of my favorite stories about Jesus – so here it is.

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

It’s one of my favorites, I think, because I have such a complicated emotional response to it. And a lot feels unclear to me. Is John asking Jesus to come help him get out of prison? Or is he just asking to Jesus to confirm for him what John had believed? Is Jesus telling him he’s not going to help him, or is he just trying to reassure John that everything is going as planned?

I tend to read this story in the more complicated way: John is saying to Jesus, in effect, “You’re the Messiah, right? Gonna come help me out here?”

And Jesus replies, “I’m doing the work I was called to do: healing, bringing life, giving hope. Not… getting my cousin out of jail.”

Then, what I really love is the paragraph after, where Jesus says to the people around him, “Who did you think I am? Some super nice guy who never hurts anyone’s feelings? Someone who wears nice clothes and looks impressive? Sorry, that’s not me.”

I think what I like about this is that it feels like an outburst. It feels like Jesus expressing his own anger and ambivalence about the nature of his work in the world. It feels like Jesus saying, “I wish I could do everything, and be everything to everyone, but I … can’t right now.”

I like it because it’s so incredibly human, and gives me a window into the inner struggle Jesus faced. And it mirrors struggles in my own life, too, where I have had to say to myself, “I know that everyone will like me better if I fit into this mold, or don’t tell them how this is affecting me, or pretend that everything is ok. But I can’t.”

It’s not a good feeling. It’s the feeling of deeply disappointing other people. It really sucks.

And yet, it is necessary to everyone who has a sense of vocation.

Someone asked me a few years ago what my best advice for seminarians would be. I thought for a second and said, “Be careful not to confuse anyone’s best hopes for you with your vocation.”

It is something I have struggled with my whole life. Learning how to disappoint people is a tough thing to learn. I love that Jesus feels angry about having to do it, too.

Advent Day 14: the darkness

Today I want to offer you a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

I come home from the soaring

in which I lost myself.

I was song, and the refrain which is God

is still roaring in my ears.

Now I am still

and plain: 

no more words.

To the others I was like a wind: 

I made them shake.

I’d gone very far, as far as the angels,

and high, where light thins into nothing.

But deep in the darkness is God.

————————

It has been raining and/or cloudy the entire day. Maybe the last two days. Or three. I’m not really sure.

I am in such a good place right now in my life and in my mental and emotional and relational health that the rain and cloudiness hasn’t really bothered me. But it wasn’t that long ago that a stretch of days like this would be nearly unbearable. It wasn’t that long ago that even the sunniest and most beautiful of days couldn’t speak to my spirit.

One of the psalms for today is psalm 42:

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? 
and why are you so disquieted within me?

These verses, to me, are kind of the essence of what we now call “depression” – the heaviness, the lack of any sense of peace, and the anger at oneself for not being able to “shake it” – no matter how good life “should” feel in the moment. I feel like I can hear the frustration and stuckness in these verses. In modern vernacular, it might read something like, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just feel good?”

And that, right there, is depression.

I am feeling particularly mindful today of people who have lost someone recently or are facing seemingly insurmountable struggles in this season. Holidays are so hard in the face of grief and loss and depression; Christmas in particular, with all of its cultural emphasis on “joy,” can feel like rubbing salt in a wound. I know that I have definitely felt that way at times: as though my lack of joy was just one more way I was failing at being human.

In fact, full disclosure, I have often felt like that. Most of my life has been spent somewhere between dysthymia and major depressive episodes. It has only been the last few years that I have felt… good. Like, just good. Not overworking myself to outrun my feelings or convince myself that I was worthy of love, not plodding along waiting for the whole thing to be over, not distracting myself with endless business. I’m just good. Fairly relaxed. Mostly non-anxious.

It’s amazing. I remember the first few days I had of this feeling, this solid okay-ness. It was only a few years ago. It was as though a veil was lifted from my eyes: is this how easy life is for other people? I asked Lou. They nodded. The non-depressed ones, anyway, they said. Which are few in number.

Few in number indeed. Whether it is modern times or just the eternal human condition, living can hurt. If that’s you right now, you are known. If that’s not you right now, know that we – you and I – have to care for those around us who are deep in the pit right now. Maybe it was us a few years ago, or decades – maybe it will be us in the months to come. Whenever we’re blessed or lucky enough to be standing in the light, we must witness with those in the darkness.

That’s where God is.

Advent Day 13: Hope vs Denial

When I was a chaplain, I had the privilege of having many conversations about existential concerns with people who were severely ill and/or dying. When I say “privilege,” I really mean it – it’s not some kind of faux humility. What I mean is that I learned so much about living from spending time with the dying. They were some of the best teachers of my life, though they never knew it.

I remember thinking at one point that there were basically three ways that people who believed in God responded and made sense of their own suffering. One person might respond all three ways in the course of a day; one person might only ever respond one way. But I remember that basically there were three responses:

1.) Denial of their own suffering. God doesn’t allow me to suffer because I believe in God and so therefore I am not really suffering right now. (Other variations: It’s not that bad. Other people have it worse. I’m going to get right up out of this hospital bed in a day or two and leave this behind me.)

2.) Despair. God has abandoned me, I’m not sure I even think there is a God anymore, if there is, wtf have I done to deserve this level of suffering? (Other variations: I deserve this. I brought it on myself. God is punishing me.)

3.) Acceptance. “Acceptance” is quite the right word for it, but it’s the best I can do right now. But basically the response of, “This sucks and is really not what I want for my life right now. I am suffering/in pain/really scared. But I am also still experiencing hope and gratitude.”

This third way, of course, always seemed to me to be the way I hoped I would respond someday. I can’t say I’ve ever really embodied it. I’m really good at #1 and #2 but know that I’d like to be the kind of person who responds like #3.

The scripture that jumped out at me today was from Psalm 31:

Blessed be the LORD! for he has shown me the wonders of his love in a besieged city.

I feel like I see response #3 in this little sentence here. There’s no denial of suffering – it’s a besieged city. Yet there’s also affirmation of wonders and love in the midst of that very real and present suffering. It’s not denial and it’s not despair. It’s something else.

I think about this a lot in regards to the crises unfolding in our world right now. The election in the UK was on my mind, and the many ways that climate change is stressing societies and harming the most vulnerable. And, of course, the way I see my own country descending farther and farther every day into something very ugly. I feel, in myself, the temptation to respond to all of it with #1 or #2 – to say either, “This too shall pass, it’s not as bad as the media makes it sound,” or “It’s even worse than the media makes it sound and everything is turning to sh*t.

But the challenge of faith, and the way I want and need to respond as a person of the crucifixion and resurrection is to look at it all, see the very real evil and despair and incredible injustice that is permeating the world, to allow my fear and anxiety and sorrow be turned into action on behalf of the suffering and oppressed, and to still be able to see wonders and love and hope and even joy in the midst of all of it.

Gonna work on that.

Advent Day 12: When I just cannot

The world feels exhausting today.

To be fair, I think that’s mainly because I am actually physically exhausted. I woke up at 4:30 this morning and haven’t been able to get back to sleep. I’ve been sitting out here in my living room since 5:15, drinking tea and mulling over the readings for today. I’ve got a bunch of running around to do today and am cringing as I think about it.

I find the readings for today exhausting too. In the book of Amos, God is promising destruction. In the psalm, we’re talking about the evil and the righteous. In the book of Revelation, more destruction. And in the Gospel reading, Jesus is mad at religious hypocrites again. Aren’t we all.

I just feel like: I got nothing. I can’t rouse my passion or my anger or my hope or my curiosity. I can’t contribute right now because the coffers are empty.

So this morning I’m letting the church pray and read and sing and I’m going to listen  – literally – via an audio version of today’s morning prayer (in the tradition of the Episcopal Church.) If I were actually sitting in a chapel with other people, I would totally be sitting there listening to everyone else do the work of sitting and standing and speaking and singing. That’s the kind of space I’m in right now.

And that’s ok. It’s the reciprocal nature of community in Christ: give and take, serve and be served, carry and be carried.

Today I’m being carried. Thanks be to God.