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Submersion

I do not create things on Holy Saturday. This is the day between Good Friday and Easter, and I sit still. Or I do laundry, or mop the kitchen floor. But I do not create.

Several years ago, I found myself baptizing a new friend in my living room on Holy Saturday. This is an excerpt from the book I’ve been writing for the past several years, wherein that story is told.

We are gathered for a baptism on the day that sits between the death of Jesus on Good Friday and the resurrection on Easter Sunday in my New York City apartment living room. Everything is crowded.  Ingrid has brought two friends. This day is significant, I explain to them, as we sit together. We are gathered on a day that is very traditional for baptisms in Christianity: Holy Saturday. It is a day of liturgical silence, nuzzled in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, a day defined by its in-between-ness. 

As I talk, I am remembering two years earlier, when I was only weeks from moving to New York City. I had driven to a church where a dear friend was the priest for morning prayer. Between getting our house on the market, finishing out the semester as a professor, and preparing to start new work in a very new (and rather harsh) city, my spirit was in a constant state of trembling. The liminal unknowing of Holy Saturday had been stretching over months for me, and this was the one day of the church year that recognized the silent trembling of my internal world. I needed to go to church to be held together.

I sat in the nearly empty, sunlit sanctuary in the suburbs of DC, waiting for my friend to start the service for the handful of us gathered there, waiting to be reminded that I was not alone, that even on Holy Saturday, the emptiness is not real. But then I opened the Book of Common Prayer to the service for the day. I felt stunned to read the first words of the morning service: There is no celebration of Eucharist on this day. The morning prayer of Holy Saturday begins with an instruction on what does not happen. We do not break bread together. Holy Saturday is a day of absence.

Eucharist. For Christians this refers to the Christian ritual of eating bread and wine, but it is a word that, at its root, means giving thanks. On Holy Saturday, then, we do not give thanks. I can appreciate that: we cannot and should not give thanks for trauma, which is what Jesus’ death was to his followers. We do not give thanks because there is no escape hatch for this day. We are stuck in it. That morning, the service was remarkably short and we did not, as the book says, share bread and wine. We read some scriptures, we said a prayer, and then were sent back into the world to wait, to tremble. 

It is telling, and not surprising, that many forms of Protestant Christianity have done away with Holy Saturday altogether (and, sometimes, Good Friday as well), choosing only to ritually recognize the resurrection. It is the American way, to want to skip over the loss and just get to the happy ending, to turn religion into the Disneyworld of the spiritual life, to pretend we can will ourselves into a world where there is no doubt or unknowing or unthinkable loss, only resurrection, joy, harmony. But there is no resurrection without the silent terror of Holy Saturday, a day that recognizes time that Jesus spent in hell while his disciples wrestled with the apparent truth that all they had loved was a lie. I hate the truth of Holy Saturday more than nearly anything else in this world, but I recognize it as truth: death is a necessary part of life, destruction a necessary part of creation. 

Did I know, two years ago, that I was only months away from starting a divorce, after fifteen years of marriage? No. I had no idea. At last finished with graduate school and on my way to a promising new job, I thought I was finished with dying. My spirit knew, perhaps, and my body, with its constant insomnia, but in my mind I had no idea. Did I know how terribly unhappy I was going to be in New York City during those first few years? I had some suspicion, but I shoved it to the side, forced it into silence. My conscious mind could not even consider the loss that I was about to endure. All I knew was that I needed something in life to feel good again; some words that brought comfort instead of terror. So I went to church early on Holy Saturday hoping to hear something that would feel good. Instead, I heard that the church is silent on this day, that we do not give thanks for Holy Saturday.

But the day portion of Holy Saturday is set apart from the night. For when the sun sets on Holy Saturday, churches all over the world gather outside the sanctuary and light a fire to begin the  the Easter Vigil, the longest service of the year. It is during this service that new converts (or babies, depending on one’s tradition) are baptized. This is the long river of tradition that this living room baptism will be swept along with, and I have always found the Easter Vigil to be remarkably, and wonderfully, primal. Congregants huddle around the Paschal fire – a great flame lit on the church steps – as the darkness  descends over the world. They call out to the saints who have gone before to be present here, now, in the evening-before-morning. It is a death-defying liturgical space, insisting on light in the darkness, yet it also feels wildly unstable: I have gathered around the Paschal flame in rain, sleet, and cool spring breezes. In an era in which “church” is often equated with large stone building impervious to the elements, the Easter Vigil is so very not. We are subject to dark and cold, and it is in those conditions that we gather to light a fire, out here in the world. And we baptize, dunking people into holy water, so that they may emerge into a new life that is both a gift and a choice.

My living room is not nearly as dramatic or primal, but our insistence on claiming whatever space we can as sacred feels very much in line with churches who light their paschal fires on city streets, insisting that the world around us is a site of constant transformation. I am sitting with women who have suffered and survived together. The mutuality and vulnerability that is the foundation of their friendship is clear to me, as they take turns telling stories, describing the ways their spirits have been nourished and grown over the last several weeks in the wake of Jack’s death. The mutuality and vulnerability is more like what I have always dreamed a church could be than what church ever has been. This community is more than enough to be the context for a baptism. My instincts had been trustworthy.

We take turns sharing what has brought us all to this moment, to this sharing of a ritual moment. One of the women describes how she has come to understand God in the wake of the loss of her child. The other describes her own childhood experiences of church and how she always felt like an outsider. Finally it is Ingrid’s turn, and she describes the moment, decades ago, when she had to make a decision to pursue sobriety. “I had to make the choice to live,” she says, choking up. “And now I am making that choice all over again.”

Yes, she is making that choice. So am I, as I pour water from our makeshift baptismal font over her head, as I seal her forehead with our homemade holy oil, in this tiny one-bedroom apartment amidst the pre-war buildings of uptown Manhattan. This is a holy space. If we must stand in Holy Saturday, if we are forced to exist on the days that lie between between death and resurrection, we can still make this one choice, this terrifying choice to live. It is the only antidote to Holy Saturday that I know: to light the primal Paschal fire even as the world is going dark. 

Bless the dying

Yesterday I gave a blessing to a baby bird who was hiding in a little pocket of packed dirt between the posts of a wrought-iron fence. It was a little puffball of baby bird downy feather, its two little eyes staring wildly onto the sidewalk. We wouldn’t have seen it if my dog hadn’t sniffed at it before deciding to keep walking. It camouflaged flawlessly with the dust.

“We have to save it,” said Lou.

”We can’t save it,” I responded. “It’s sick already and is going to die.”

”I know,” Lou replied. “But can’t we just take it home and let it be comfortable until it dies?”

I sighed. “You know that COVID-19 probably came from a bat or something, right?”

We stood in silence for a moment and watched the little shivering bird. “Would you like me to give it a blessing?” I asked. Lou nodded.

I knelt on the sidewalk and stretched out my hand close to the little bird, the orphan discarded from its mothers nest, the one not given a fair chance at life, the one who would huddle under fence posts until the blessing of death descended. I looked into its little eyes as I spoke, and after I said, “Amen,” we said goodbye.

I cannot make sense of this.

There is no sense to be made of this.

What I do know is this: we can all bless the spaces we are in. And wherever we are, it matters.

We can bless the spaces we are in. Gently, and always inadequately. But we can do it. This is the work of a chaplain, to bless the most difficult spaces, whatever that looks like, even in the midst of suffering. Even in the midst of death.

If we give up that calling, my friends, we have definitely lost.

I want to share with you today not a scripture passage, but one of my very favorite prayers from the Episcopal tradition. Maybe it will help you bless this darkening time, or even the darkening of your own spirit, as it has for me.

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.

 

Danger Zone

The third Monday of the great “pause.” None of us know quite what to call this. The socially isolating? The pandemic? The virus? The quarantine? Yes and no to all of those words, but everyone here knows what I mean: this is the third Monday of this new, albeit temporary, reality.

Go back another Monday – four Mondays ago – and we really had no sense of what was about to befall us here in NYC. That was early March. March has still not ended yet, which is stunning to me. Tomorrow is the last day of March and I’m not totally sure I believe a new month will arrive. Isn’t this an endless March? Won’t spring and summer bring all of what we’ve come to expect from them – the picnics, the swimming, the crowded parks, the sidewalks filled with people?

”Pause” – the word NY Governor Andrew Cuomo picked to describe this current reality – is actually really quite perfect, for those of us stuck at home. For those on the frontlines of medicine and grocery stores, of course, not so much. As for clergy, we are finding out what it means to do everything virtually – and yesterday, I learned what it’s like to preach virtually.

I was honestly scared enough about the content of my sermon that I didn’t actually watch it as it was being broadcast. (We moved to pre-recording our worship service to minimize stress and possible tech glitches.) I turned off the sound and just hung out with people in the comment section – not something a preacher often (or ever) gets to do in real time. (I resisted the temptation to heckle myself.) I had recorded it two days earlier and then immediately deleted it from my ipad so I didn’t have to be around it anymore. The sermon felt right, it felt like the things I was supposed to say, but it also felt… dangerous.

What was it that felt dangerous?

Honestly, that I was going to be in a virtual “pulpit” saying things like, “None of us are going to get out of this untouched,” and “we are going to keep losing things – people, securities, jobs, and who knows what else.” We are taught in seminary that when you preach you are preaching the good news, full stop, and saying those things didn’t feel like very much good news.

In fact, it felt like the complete opposite. But it is also accurate and true, and if there is one thing I have learned about hope, it is that hope cannot grow from a place of denial. Hope needs truth in order to flourish, even when the truth is hard, even horrendous. Without truth there literally is no hope.

In the NT reading for morning prayer today, Paul is still writing to the church in Corinth. Here’s a small excerpt:

Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their building up and encouragement and consolation.

I know that “prophecy” is a heavily laden word in our language and in American society. People hear it and think: telling the future? Calling out injustice? A complete sham – snake oil religion?

Well – when I hear the word ”prophecy,” what I hear is, “listen to and speak truth.” That is what prophetic leadership, prophetic speaking, and prophetic listening (topic for a whole other post) have in common – a fearless rooting in truth.

That means the truth of not knowing how this is all going to play out. The truth that we are all going to be grieving now and in the future. The truth that our leaders have failed in horrendous ways during this crisis. The truth that the most vulnerable among us are paying the highest price. The truth that so many of us are powerless in the face of a pandemic, left only to adhere to the instruction to “stay home.”

BUT. ALSO. There are other truths, too, and these must also be spoken. The truth that I am loving having my spouse and son around so much. The truth that our learning to be and work together has made our relationship stronger. The truth that babies are still being born and people are still (at a distance from their guests!) getting married. The truth that we can still all create beauty and spread goodness and even joy in the midst of so much loss. The truth that people are coming together in beautiful and powerful ways to address the holes left by our federal government.

The truth that the sun is still shining, even behind this terribly gloomy overcast sky that seems to have parked over Manhattan the past few days. This is true. It might feel dangerous to say it, but we have to say it anyway.

Thanks be to God.

 

When stillness is our greatest strength

One of the hardest – if not the hardest – emotions for us humans to tolerate is the feeling of powerlessness.

And this pandemic, it’s waking up just about everyone’s sense of powerlessness. We respond to it in different ways: some of us manically schedule ourselves and our kids, even in isolation; some of us are rendered stuck by it, staring at the wall; some of us go into a state of denial and act as though nothing new is happening; some of us jump right into finding blame – how could this have been prevented?; some of us decide that doing something, anything, is better than nothing, so we do that: and sometimes it’s helpful, and other times, it’s not.

The truth of the matter is that the best thing anyone can do right now who is NOT a doctor, nurse, medical professional (or someone whose work is necessary for those folks to get to where they need to go, etc) is probably to adhere to a list of “do NOTs.” Do NOT go outside unless necessary. Do NOT congregate with others. Do NOT hoard groceries from the store. Do NOT go to the hospital unless it is an emergency. Do NOT keep your businesses open, do NOT have dinners with neighbors, do NOT have play dates for your children, do NOT… you get the point.

Here’s the one “DO”: Stay at home.

This feels like an awful lot of nothing for some of us (including me) and can be hard to tolerate, so I found some solace and guidance in our NT reading from Morning Prayer today:

1 Corinthians 12:12-26

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.

It’s a challenge to take on the work of another part of the body that we’re not used to, but it’s critical sometimes, like now. I know that many people in the church I serve and in my circles of friends identify with the “hands” part of the body – they show their love and faith in doing good work in the world. Serving others, advocating on behalf of others, working for broad social change. But at this particular moment most of us are not called to be hands in the world, or at least, not in the same way we are used to being hands.

Of course, we can still do important work: advocate for others by calling our representatives, donating money to where it is needed.

But we have to stay put. Stay Home. Be present. And in a culture that prizes productivity, visibility, and action, that’s pretty counter-cultural.

Most of us, right now, are simply called to wait, to pray, to hope, to be ready for when our moment arrives for a different role. To be present to ourselves, to our friends and family (even if not physically present), to our world (even through a window pane), and to the Body of which we are all a part.

It doesn’t feel like doing something – but it is something. It is the most important thing for many of us right now. And it doesn’t feel good. But it is good.

Thanks be to God.

Not everyone is experiencing the same pandemic

It feels good to have the sun shining today in NYC after a snowy and rainy day yesterday. I took my very reluctant dog for a walk up in the hills of Inwood Hill Park and went to one of my favorite spots – Overlook Meadow – where I could see the birds of prey cruising and cruising and soaring. One eagle, lots of hawks and maybe a falcon today. I wonder a lot about the wildlife, are they enjoying some time without so many humans out and about? Does the air feel cleaner to them? Are fewer of their herds and families being hit by cars? Is the world suddenly blessedly more quiet for them?

I think also of the unequal way this pandemic is affecting people in this country: I have clergy colleagues in more rural states who are having trouble convincing folks in their congregations that this whole pandemic isn’t just some hoax, something cooked up to make the President look bad, or who knows what else. Is this thing even real if you can’t see results in your local community?

Meanwhile, here in NYC,  I have friends who are figuring out how to deliver a baby when hospitals are no longer allowing partners to accompany laboring folks, and friends who are nurses who are sharing how frightening it is to have to put their well-being on the line due to a severe shortage in basic medical supplies, friends who have lost their jobs and are scared, teachers who have had to come up with entire online curricula over the course of a week or less, friends who need hospital care for things other than COVID-19 who are unable to access it.

Then, the inequalities even within the city limits: people cramped in small apartments versus large penthouses (or even large 1-2 bedrooms like what I am lucky enough to live in), people whose jobs are not threatened immediately by this pandemic and those whose jobs have ended, kids who live with safe families versus violent ones.

None of this is fair, and it makes me angry, and I feel so powerless.

One of the readings from today’s morning prayer is from a letter to an early Christian community who was also struggling with sharing resources. This is from 1 Corinthians…

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

Every now and then Paul could really tell it like it was, and this was one of those times. Later on he even goes on to advise folks to not even bother celebrating the Lord’s Supper if they couldn’t learn to make sure that everyone was provided for equally. Like, do not bother to come to church if you cannot get your ethical sh*t together. 

What a mess.

Today I’m thinking and praying for guidance about how to best support the many, many people who are on the frontlines of this and who are bearing the brunt of the inadequacy of our federal government: nurses and doctors and hospital staff; “gig” economy workers and restaurant staff; families who were already living on the brink of poverty and despair; children in homes where domestic violence is an issue; the sick and the dying and all those who need medical care who are unable to get what they need right now.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

 

 

 

 

Getting on base

I admit – there have been times in my life when I have been suspicious of hope, the same way someone might be suspicious of, say, miracle vitamin supplements or costly homeopathic remedies.

There have been times in my life that hope seems like a cheap escape from reality, or merely an opiate to numb a more proven despair.

Yesterday I posed some questions about hope to my group of teenagers that meets on Sunday morning. What does hope look like in action, I asked? What if hope is more than just a feeling, but concrete actions and practices that we can take and do?

One person, an avid baseball player, likened it to being in the middle of losing a baseball game. “You have to take small steps,” he said. “Like, you can’t think about winning the game. You just have to think about what can do – like, ok, I’m just going to get on base now. Then it’s the next thing.”

I found that advice very wise, and not unlike part of the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday. This is from Romans 8:

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

“Thinking positively” is a deeply American response to tragedy and fear and it’s not a phrase that I personally resonate with. “Thinking positively” too often feels somehow simultaneously too cheap (like a denial of reality) and way too hard (like the world is burning and you want me to… what, exactly? The world is burning!)

But I think if we reduce these words of Paul, and the words of my teenage friend, to simply “thinking positively,” we miss a more important invitation. It’s an invitation deeper into reality, an invitation into a radical, prophetic, and potentially world-changing hope.

I’m going to take this week to really focus on writing about hope (and possibly preaching on it this Sunday). But I think I want to close this entry today by asking myself, and asking you, how are you living out your hope today?

The world is weird right now, and frightening for many of us. How are you going to, in the words of my friend, going to get on base today? I’m not necessarily talking about your job or being productive or or keeping away the blues. I’m talking about – how can we, as we walk through these blues together, still keep some lights on?

Let’s keep walking, and keep listening, and keep lighting the path for one another.

Through the Depths

So, a shout-out to all the introverts in NYC who used to have alone time but now have family or roommates with them 24/7. I see you. I feel your pain. Everything feels harder, doesn’t it?

I’m starting to really feel the paralysis of all of this getting to me, and the creative/professional/personal goals I was working towards prior to COVID-19 are feeling blurry, nebulous. Like I can’t truly see them anymore. Maybe this is part of the not-knowing that comes with being in a pandemic… the feeling of uncertainty about what comes next starts to infect everything. I wanted to record another album this year; will people still listen to music? Should I bother practicing? I have a book waiting to be sent to the publisher; will my book still speak to people after this? Should I bother continuing to edit?

Rationally, of course, I know the answer to all of these questions is yes, of course. We have to embody hope, we have to keep creating for the future we know is coming, we have to keep working for the world to emerge from this virus because it will. I know it in my head.

But my heart, where my creative work comes from, clearly is a little unsure.

The reading from the daily office today is from the 63rd chapter of Isaiah:

Where is the one who put within them
his holy spirit,
who caused his glorious arm
to march at the right hand of Moses,
who divided the waters before them
to make for himself an everlasting name,
who led them through the depths?
Like a horse in the desert,
they did not stumble.
Like cattle that go down into the valley,
the spirit of the Lord gave them rest.
Thus you led your people,
to make for yourself a glorious name.
Look down from heaven and see,
from your holy and glorious habitation.
Where are your zeal and your might?
The yearning of your heart and your compassion?
They are withheld from me.

What jumped out at me today in this excerpt are the parts that’s I’ve put in bold lettering… especially the line, “who led them through the depths?” This idea, that God leads us through depths and deserts, is one of my favorite themes in the Bible. Often our wish or prayer is that we could find an escape hatch to the hardest experiences in life. And when that’s what we’re after, we often just stall ourselves out in the middle of the storm or the desert or the depths. But there are so many places in the Bible where people describe being accompanied in the depths instead of plucked out of them.

Where are the depths? The places where we lose our mooring, where we feel ungrounded, where few things (if any) feel trustworthy and we don’t know how or when we’re going to see the light of day again. I’d be hard-pressed to describe where I am right now as “the depths” – I mean, I’m actually doing pretty well – but it’s more like, I can feel those depths in and around me. They are present. It’s why I’m struggling to pick up projects I was excited about just a few weeks ago.

Here’s the other thing about how God being with us in the “the depths” is often described  – and we can see it in this excerpt – that God is present but God cannot be perceived, felt, or seen. What’s that about? I don’t know, but I know it’s often true. (Another example of this that I love is in Psalm 77: Your way was through the sea; your path was through the mighty waters, yet your footprints were unseen.)

We live in culture that often wants a how-to, a what-to-do-when. As a pastor, maybe I should be writing, right now, 3 easy steps to follow when you’re in the “depths” and are totally unconvinced that the Holy One is near.

I don’t have that. I think if I were to write anything like that, I’d be standing against most, if not all, of the biblical narrative. Here’s what I’ve got:

1) When we feel that God is farthest away, God is actually intimately close.

2) When we feel like the Spirit is the least active, even abandoning us, the Spirit is working overtime in us.

3) Sometimes being in the depths means looking for the light. Sometimes it means simply sitting in the darkness and letting the darkness work on us. Sometimes it means reaching out to fellow wanderers. Sometimes it means drawing in close to yourself. No one can know your path for you. Your path through the depths is between you and the Spirit. We can support and encourage and love one another, but we cannot know the way of the Spirit, particularly in the depths, because the depths are defined by a sense of unknowing.

So what am I going to do today? The bare minimum for my professions (apologies, students and congregation members). Rest and quiet for me. Shutting the door of my bedroom more often. Taking a long walk – alone – once the rain lets up. Getting out the harp and maybe the banjo. Cooking. Nesting. And making beautiful things, because that’s part of how the Spirit is working with me right now.

Thanks be to God.