I was not a particularly neat child. I am, by nature, a little messy: piles of things tend to accumulate around me. Stacks of papers on a desk; a jumble of clothes on a chair, waiting to be put away. Putting things away seemed counterintuitive. I knew where everything was when it was out – I could see it! Or rather, sometimes I could see it, until a second layer began to accrue. “Get your things off the floor!” was not an infrequent response when my bedroom door opened. It was a reasonable request. Eventually, after enough grumbling, I’d get down to it.
And parts of tidying up were fun! I still find organizing and arranging different pieces of my life very satisfying. It brings a little order to the chaos; there is something deeply creative about the process. But without fail, after a few minutes cleaning up one spot, I would be distracted by another area that needed tending to. Part way through the floor in front of the closet, the lost stuffed animals partially under my bed would call out to me.
So it is today. I’ll be part way through one task when I notice something else that needs doing and begin bouncing back and forth between them. Finishing one thing completely would be a much more efficient use of time, and perhaps a better marshalling of mental energy. It’s true of the papers and sermons I write, it’s true of events that I plan. But there are just so many ideas that could be explored, and they’re all in conversation with one another! The downside is that going back and forth between them can feel like a constant rush for time, mirroring the pull of contemporary life on our time and attention. We live in world that constantly seeks our attention: in addition to click-bait headlines and algorithms privileging posts that invite strong reactions, there are the very real crises of our time. There is so much clamoring for space in our minds that it can feel like we are always being pulled back and forth, rushed and stretched because there is so much to consume and process. More often than not, I think, we are the ones being consumed.
God calls us to live in the reality of our messy, chaotic world. It’s what we are baptized into. We’re not called to be overwhelmed by it, though, or consumed by it. We are called to live in the world and to transform it into God’s kingdom through our living. We are called to recognize the moments of space and grace that interrupt our usually scheduled programming. God is there, in the mess and chaos with us, making those spaces and filling them with grace. And when we can recognize God in it, and step into God’s invitation for us and our lives, we experience the already of God’s kingdom, and help live out its not yet.
As Christians we see our lives through the lens of Christ, and we look to his life, death, and resurrection to make meaning of the world. Jesus didn’t ever seem interested in efficiency, but he certainly knew what it was like to navigate a messy and chaotic world. Think of all the times the crowds are mentioned in the Gospels! There were people around constantly, trying to touch him, pressing closer to hear his words. When it got to be too much, he stepped away and he prayed.
In Mark, Jesus says to his apostles, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31) He had noticed that in their work “many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat.” So they go. And after feeding the 5,000 people who follow them out of town, Jesus demands his disciples get in a boat and cross the sea of Galilee, leaving him behind, so he can go up the mountain to pray.
We are not Jesus. But like Jesus we need to live into those moments of space and grace. Taking time to breathe and pray and reflect doesn’t mean we are shirking our responsibilities: they are part of our responsibility. They can help us hear God more clearly, and they give us new perspective when we return to the mess that may surround us. Sometimes we notice them as they occur. Other times we have to ask for help seeing them. And just like we might need the invitation to come a way to a deserted place and rest awhile, we need to invite the people around us to do the same.
Maybe it’s a friend, or partner, or child who you notice is spinning a little too fast from one thing to another and needs to take a pause. Maybe it’s a colleague, who could use a little help on a project or the reminder that their work isn’t going unnoticed. Maybe it’s someone bagging your groceries, who looks like they’ve had a long week and could use a friendly conversation. Maybe it’s someone asking for money at an intersection, with whom you can share your generosity and compassion. Whoever it is – whatever messy room surrounds them, metaphorically or in reality – invite them to find some space in the middle of it and take a few breaths. Listen to God’s invitation to you. The mess will still be there, but you may be changed.
For most of his life, my father struggled with mental illness, never diagnosed. He called it “feeling blue,” but the poetic label belied the depths of his depression and its effect on the folks around him. We learned to accommodate the violent eruptions, the name-calling, the self-centeredness, the angry truck engine roaring off down the street, which meant he would disappear for a day or two. I appreciated his absences more often than not. And we tiptoed around when he slept with his head on the dining room table, making up stories about his professional failures and setbacks. “He’s proud… he’s sensitive… he’s too smart for typical jobs and that’s why we don’t have any money…” Truth was, I didn’t know what was wrong, just that he wasn’t well.
The impact of accommodating the dis-ease in the household, rather than engaging it or working through it openly, was multilayered—running away, addiction, acting out, depression, materialism, pride—the body of our family was traumatized, and my siblings and I still carry those wounds. Thanks to therapists and mentors and spouses, each of us is working through the pain by now, in large part to break the pattern. We know what happens to children and spouses and communities when a parent’s troubling issues are swept under the rug. The silence and the lack of a sensible narrative are as toxic as the rages.
At some point the stories of Jesus became a way through for me. As I read them, the Spirit doesn’t just look at our destructive behavior and tell us to stop it. It comes to where we are most vulnerable, asks us “Where do you hurt?” and shows us the impact of visiting our pain on others.
Last night I dreamed about a part of the Arthurian legend, the time when the king had been mortally wounded. The people went about their daily tasks lethargically, as if they were in a trance, or they were at odds with each other, and many felt lost. At this moment a fatherless young man named Parsifal comes of age, and he encounters the king’s knights riding along the road. Awestruck, by their shining appearance, he sets off for the castle.
But Parsifal is struck dumb by what he finds there. Instead of the glorious Camelot that he expected, he finds himself in the middle of a wasteland, where everything is sterile and cold. He discovers that the king has been wounded in the middle of his body, and had lost the powers of potency and regeneration.
The young knight wants desperately to help his king, but he, like everyone else, had no answers as to how to heal the wound. Instead his mind was filled with questions, but he dammed them up, remembering that his mother had told him not to embarrass people by probing too much. So he leaves the court on a quest for the holy grail.
After venturing down many blind paths and false trails, Parsifal glimpses the grail—the cup that Jesus purportedly used at the last supper—and as a result, he felt the king’s pain in his own heart. He rode back to Arthur’s castle and rushed to the king, who was at death’s door. Overcoming his earlier hesitance, he knelt beside his monarch and asked, “What ails thee?”
What ails thee? Where does it hurt? How are you suffering?
And the spell was broken. By asking him an honest question of compassion, the king is restored, and the inhabitants of the kingdom along with him. The king offered the young man a toast: “When you falter and fail, never forget: today holds the promise of redemption.” Today you can make a healthy choice. Today you can benefit the community. Today you can be redeemed. However dark the night has been, compassion and empathy can create a new day.
Consider the power of such a question, posed by one struggling traveler to another. What ails thee? Where does it hurt? What happened a while ago that still festers and fumes? What are you caught up in that makes you sick? What makes you or your family or the community stumble and fall?
When I was a young man, I set out equipping myself for my own quest. Like Parsifal, my initial strategy was to sheathe myself in the same armor I had seen other knights don—Ivy league degree, list of contacts, straightened white teeth and a good haircut—but all that had nothing to do with the wound in my belly. Lost and stuck when arguably I should have felt some considerable potency, I spent a year seeking my father. I found him (and myself) in endless cups of coffee shared at a Burger King, piecing together a sensible narrative of my family’s story, asking him “What hurts?” Raising the pain to consciousness equipped me to not repeat its wounding pattern.
When a leader is wounded at his center, the system suffers, and that is our reality as Americans at this moment. Whatever one’s political party, our president is not well. Deflection, distraction, self-centeredness, and bullying are not the signs of health, and accommodating such destructiveness in one who wields such power imperils the whole. I pray for President Trump every day. Republicans and Democrats at their best stand for humane values grounded in good will, good governance, elected representation, responsible stewardship of resources, and securing the well-being of the most vulnerable. Solving our problems through honest debate and respecting each other’s right to informed and differing opinions brings out the best in us. Interrogating our history with open eyes, open minds, and open hearts enables us to recapture our soaring aspirations, even as we confront that we have never yet achieved its goals for all of our citizens. We can one day. But not if we don’t ask ourselves what ails our principal leader, confront every measure of collaboration or colluding, condemn any act of or invitation to violence, seek his healing, and our own.
Yesterday at noon, 9 of us sat in a circle 6-feet apart in the courtyard outside of the Welcome Center by the circular driveway. As some of you know, this spot has emerged as our sacred gathering space during COVID, a place where our staff meets on Tuesdays for our weekly meeting; a place where clergy meet with parishioners 1-on-1 to talk and visit, laugh, cry and pray; a place where communion bread is blessed, broken and shared, but only after the “sacrament” of the giving and receiving of hand-sanitizer has occurred. On the other side of this season of pandemic, when COVID is in our rear view mirror (and yes, my friends, hang on, hang on! That day will come!), I know I will look at that space with new eyes and a new appreciation. Who knew?
As the 9 of us gathered yesterday, I told a bit of the story of Thecla, a a first century noble woman who was so moved and inspired by the good news of God in Christ, as preached by the Apostle Paul, that she left the life she knew to travel and spread the good news alongside him — extraordinary for a woman to do, at that time. The stories of Thecla’s life and adventures are nothing short of extraordinary, and include an incident where a Providential storm saved her from burning at the stake, and another instance where her God-filled presence so affected the beasts around her that, instead of attacking and killing her, as her accusers intended in a public execution, the beasts protected her so she escaped unharmed.
After hearing some of Thecla’s story, the 9 of us took some time to reflect on courage and where each of us finds courage in our lives, today. One shared she finds courage in the daily example of our front line medical responders who risk their lives daily to care for others. Two others shared they find courage in the public witness and examples of Dr. Fauci and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Alongside these examples of courage, other “quieter” ones were shared. Finding courage in the example of a fellow parishioner who meets each day with a positive spirit and who makes sure the children of her neighbor, a struggling single-dad, always have homemade cakes on their birthdays. Finding courage in the example of a young woman in college, the captain of her sports team and the only woman of color on her team, who recently told her teammates how much it hurts her when they use racial slurs in her presence. Finding courage and hope in the simple gesture of people of goodwill everywhere, who choose to wear masks in public spaces to keep all of us safe.
We may not be a Thecla or a Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but to proclaim Jesus as our Lord in this day and age — and even more, to try and fashion our lives in the way Jesus lifts up for us — takes courage. May the Spirit of the Living God embolden and encourage you today, to live your life with faith, hope and love, so the light of Christ is made visible and made flesh, in You.
Recently, a friend mentioned that we were NOT necessarily living in unprecedented times, because every generation believed its times were without comparison: WWI, The Great Depression, WWII, the Vietnam era, etc. He said that this meant our period of history is just like any other of past generations. I concede that this may be true for past generations, but for this current generation, the times we are living are unparalleled! Which brings me to my point: You really need to give yourself a Break!
We are often our own worse critics and if there is one thing we have learned over these past 6 months, it is that the way we live our lives now should be a marathon and NOT a sprint. Nevertheless, we are often highly self-critical for the things we are not doing or being instead of honoring and loving who we are as we are. I mean, that is how Jesus loves us. So, instead of criticizing ourselves for not physically feeling in tip-top shape, not wanting to be with the family this evening, not wanting to make dinner, or help with homework, or whatever else you might not want to do—stop beating yourself up about it.
Give yourself the Grace of God to either DO it or DON’T do, because the choice is yours. You have the freedom to choose what is for your highest good; yes, you do. Self-criticism is definitely not for your highest good. If GOD does not criticize you, why do you criticize yourself? Are you somehow bigger and know more about yourself than GOD? Read Psalm 139. It might be an eye-opener. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself a break!
Let’s face it. We are ALL in the midst of grieving and mourning life as we have known or lived it these so many years. For those who are grieving personal losses, the loss of so much weight is even harder to bear. We have lost nearly 200,000 fellow American citizens from COVID 19 to date and this alone is cause for the blanket of sorrow that covers us as a nation. Recall the theory of six degrees of separation? We are all in this thing together so whatever affects one affects all. It is okay for you to feel sad or down sometimes; it is even okay to search diligently for that one ray of HOPE somewhere.
Give yourself a break and stop pretending that we have experienced this life we are living before; that you can just shake it off and move on. No one expects you to. Each one of us is feeling our way into a new way of be-ing.
During this huge paradigm shift, it is okay to JUST BREATHE. Sign up for a new breathing session with my colleague, Maria Cristina+ and learn how to love yourself…down to every inhalation and exhalation of your being. Remember we are in a marathon and not a relay. Slowing down and breathing deeply reconnects us with the ebb and flow of the rest of Creation. It is a wonderful way to give yourself a break.
Finally, “where are you GOD in all of this?” Where is your HIGHER POWER? Stop beating yourself up, get quiet, and listen. Speak gently to yourself, love yourself, do what gives you joy, be grateful, and then you will know Peace. You are not being selfish because you are allowing GOD to love on you through you. Ask God for the grace to receive the Love being poured out every minute. Do enough of these things and you might discover a delightful surprise. Emmanuel!!!
Holding you in LIGHT & LOVE,
Do you remember the movie Groundhog Day? Bill Murray plays a weatherman named Phil who is dispatched every year to Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the festivities of February 2, when Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, is awakened from his slumbers and studied to discover if he will see his shadow. If he does, the story goes, we will have another six weeks of winter—which we usually do. There are costumed locals, high school bands, a sometimes rather fierce “rodent” as Phil calls him, and all of us are expected to play along with the silliness. Phil the weatherman thinks it is beneath him.
At 6 a.m. in his bed and breakfast, Phil’s alarm wakes him with the song “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. He goes through a series of experiences as the day unfolds—an old classmate tries to sell him insurance, he steps in an icy puddle, he does a stand-up routine in front of the groundhog—and lobs a running patter of insults at his crew and TV viewers. Phil holds everyone in contempt it seems, including himself, and all he wants to do is get out of town. He almost does, but then the clock goes off at the same time, with the same song, and Phil repeats his miserable day—again and again and again. It slowly dawns on Phil that his day will be the same unless he changes.
Three times this week someone has told me they feel like they are stuck in the same script. Without the usual mileposts of time away from work, or a shift in activities or church services, or going back to school buildings instead of just lining up your pencils at the dining room table, it can feel like every day is the same. “I am thankful for my health,” said one old friend, “but I really don’t know if it’s Tuesday or Sunday, and I feel lost. How do you remember where you are and what’s important?” he asked me.
We talked about getting unstuck in Bible Study yesterday and the ritual work of remembering. “The oldest religious act is to remember,” I offered. A remnant of people have returned to Jerusalem after the Exile, in the book Nehemiah. With a strong, truth-telling leader, who doesn’t mince words about the challenges they face, who helps the people discover resources they didn’t know they had, who empathizes with their pain and inspires them to common purpose, together they repair their city and themselves. The physical work is just the beginning, however. As the construction vehicles back out beeping, the people gather to tell the story of their country’s founding, to remember who they are as they begin again, to measure its success and hold themselves accountable for its sorrow. Imagine their courage: they do the hard, essential work of recalling their whole history—not only the glorious deeds, soaring rhetoric, and inspired laws that changed the course of human civilization, but also the ways they have missed the mark, most searingly the times when a privileged few hoarded power and wealth to themselves, at the expense of the many. Remembering in this way is sacred work, I believe, because it roots us in the world as it is and in how it should be, a world we can rebuild with God’s help.
Imagine communities in our country doing the same work today, every year circling up in a kind of prayer to remember our whole American story—glorious deeds, soaring rhetoric, inspiring laws along with our transgressions and violence, when we did not live up to the vision to be one people, alike in dignity and equal before the law. Maybe we can begin the tradition this November, on the Sunday before election day, weaving the fabric of our service out of the many American voices, to tell the story of how we’ve come to be, to confess how far we still have to go, to remember our hope. Send me an email, if you want to take part.
In the movie, Phil finally has the courage to look at who he really is, to discover that he cares about someone, and to act in a way to deserve her love. He is still Phil—“not a different Phil, but a better Phil” (Roger Ebert)—still a mixed bag of strength and struggle, but maybe that’s the point. He escapes Groundhog Day by being the best person he knows how to be.
The Spirit’s voice of truth is healing and courageous, always drawing us to remember who we are even during this wretched pandemic, calling us to be the people that our country and our city and our families need us to be.