Friday, November 15, 2019

The Main Thing



I knew a guy who is given to motivational sayings in his teaching and leading. He is in charge of the education and development of healthcare professionals so he thinks about people learn how to work a fire extinguisher to how to do CPR to making sure nurses and allied health professionals get their continuing education. It’s a big job, and so it is no surprise that he is given to motivational sayings and those posters that show up in workplaces (and which get made fun of on the internet).

So when I read today’s Gospel, I thought of my friend and one of his motivational sayings, which was originated by Stephen Covey: “Always remember to keep the main thing the main thing.”

In the Gospel of Luke, we see that distraction from the “main thing” happened just as much in Jesus’ day as today.  A group of Sadducees, one of the many parties in the Jewish religious culture of that time, wanted to trick Jesus into saying something controversial by asking him a question about marriage and resurrection.

The set up for this question is very, very, strange: One of seven brothers marries a woman and had no children, and then he died.  According to an ancient custom, they say, the brother of the widow married her, and the same thing happened to him--no children and then death.  All seven brothers married the widow and all met with the same fate--you guessed it--no children and inevitable death.  The seven-time widow eventually herself died.  Now came the perplexing question.  "In heaven whose wife of the seven is she?" 

It’s a good thing this question went to Jesus, because I would have said, "Uhm. Huh? What?” 

And then I would have called in Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS because something very fishy is going on here! 

The question, of course, is a zinger. How do we know that? Well, for one thing, that ancient custom that was posed to Jesus? No one actually observed that custom even in Jesus’ day! Widows were widows, and they had their own particular challenges in the culture of Jesus' day. If the system that the questioners proposed actually worked that way, then all those accounts of Jesus and the early church encountering and caring for widows just would not have happened. 

No doubt about it. The question is a “gotcha.” It is meant only to make Jesus look silly. But he doesn’t take the bait. Instead he reminds them that God is God of the living, not the dead.  He is basically saying, "Our concern should be about the living."

But look! It turns out that talking smack, trolling, and living in political and religious silos were not actually invented by the internet! They aren't reserved to bullies and certain kinds of pundits and politicians. They’ve been around since, well, forever! The only thing that's change is the technology.

If you think about it, these Saducees that confronted Jesus are very familiar. We've all run across them. First, we have to recognize that Luke has grossly generalized a whole class of Jewish believers (whom he probably never actually encountered but may have heard about) and turned them into straw-men for Jesus to knock down. 

But Luke gets away with this because broadly speaking, we've met these characters before... maybe at work, or on talk-radio, or your favorite news channel, or that loud guy at the end of the bar. 

You know the type: these are the ones who love being right. The ones who feel smartest by making other people look dumb (which is the game these guys were playing with Jesus). They think of themselves as worldly and all knowing. I'll bet that the ones Jesus encountered probably laughed among themselves at Jesus and his ridiculous teaching like that silly Sermon on the Mount. 

These are folks who do not respect people they disagree with. When they confront Jesus, they came up with a world-class silly question out of their disrespect. How little did they respect Jesus? I don't know but I am sure that when they heard that Jesus walked on water, they sneered because he clearly didn't how to swim!


This is why what passes for political discourse in today's culture is so poisonous. I don't care if you're Michael Moore or Anne Coulter, or any of the rest, the technique is the same. Characterize, slander, belittle, and disrespect your opponent... and that is anyone who disagrees with you... or anyone who questions your line of attack, er, argument. 


But we don't have to play. We can keep the main thing the main thing. Like Jesus.

As so, they loved to argue. They didn’t need talk radio, cable news, and Facebook memes to argue about picky, silly stuff. And they loved to belittle those who did not think as they did.
But that leads to the thing I love most about this encounter.

Notice that when Jesus answers the very silly question, he isn’t talking to them. Why should he? He’s not going to change their minds. Jesus won’t play their game. He allows them revel in their rightness.

Instead, he speaks to all the people around Jesus who are curious, or bewildered, or just trying live from day to day. In other words, he speaks to us.

Because, as far as Jesus is concerned, convincing smug people with clever questions is not the main thing! Drawing ordinary people in closer connection to God, each other and creation…that is the main thing. Returning humanity to God and to faithfulness and wholeness was his task... it is the whole point of the incarnation, passion, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. To return us to unity with God, humanity, and creation. 

When Mark shares his version of this very same encounter in his Gospel, we see someone listening in who at once "gets" what Jesus is about, and sees through The Very Silly Question. 

In Mark (12:28-33), there is a scribe, a person who can read, write, and faithfully copies the scriptures, who overhears this conversation and has apparently had enough. He interrupts and cuts to the chase. He reminds us of the main thing. He asks Jesus a question which exposes the silliness and gets to the main thing: 
28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he had answered them well, he asked, "What commandment is the first of all?" 29Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' 31The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 32Then the scribe looked at him and said, "You are right."
In other words, always make sure you keep the main thing the main thing! 

To love God and to love neighbor as yourself, that’s the main thing!  Who cares who will be married to whom in heaven; it is all about loving God and loving neighbor!

To love God and to love neighbor--so simple, yet we make it so difficult.  But the way to fulfill these two commandments does not with addition or multiplication but through subtraction. 

Writer and theologian Richard Foster said
Contemporary Culture is plagued by a passion for possessions...more is better...the result is that the lust for affluence in contemporary society has become psychotic....We feel strained, hurried and breathless....Christian simplicity frees us from this modern mania....People once again become more important that possessions.
Christian simplicity is not only about being released from things, it is also living a life free of anything that draws us away from God and from being truly, wholly human.

So, who is married to whom in heaven:  not the main thing!  What car to drive: not the main thing.  

Clever, insulting political memes in your little internet silo: not the main thing! In fact, the only one for whom shutting down your opponent with your cleverness is the Enemy! Evil just loves it when you are reveling in your rightness and condemning of those who disagree or differ from you. Because as long as your reveling, you're not listening. As long as your put up those witty memes or cutting remarks, you're not looking at your opponent as a person but as a thing, and that this a first step away from the Way of Love.

But, just as Jesus did, you have a choice. Keep your eye on the main thing.

Getting together with neighbors and building home for the poor:  that’s the main thing!  

Serving hungry people at a community meal or visiting a home-bound person or listening to and praying with a friend in pain:  that’s the main thing! 

Building friendships among diverse people of faith: that’s the main thing!

For the past several weeks, we have been hearing stories of faith from several different members of the congregation. In a few minutes, you will hear one more. I have really enjoyed hearing each of these accounts of faith, because they are—each and every one—a story of how these extraordinary everyday Christians, your companions in faith, keep the main thing the main thing.

Keeping the main thing the main thing, shows us how following the Way of Love in companionship with the people of this parish has made a significant, tangible, difference in many lives. 

We have learned how our sisters and brothers in Christ have both handled significant challenges, and we discover how God is at work in us helping people grow in their faith and stay grounded in God.

We have again heard real-life examples of how to be Jesus' friends and apprentices. 

When you think about your place in the Church and your life of faith, we can choose to get caught up our selves and our egos and insecurities—looking to always be right, striving to be on the top of the heap, trying to always do things the way we’ve always done things—or we can be faithful stewards of God’s gifts, grace, and mercy to communicate the love of Jesus everyday. 

The question before us, and what Jesus shows us today, is that how we use what we have and how order to our relationships so that the main thing— loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and loving our neighbor as our selves—is always, in this moment and in every encounter, the main thing.

Sermon given on Sunday, November 10, 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA.
Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Watch your mouth: On truth, friendship, and character

For though we love both the truth and our friends, piety requires us to honor the truth first.

-Aristotle

A buddy of mine on Facebook-- a fellow Episcopalian who belongs to another parish-- disagrees with me on many things, often political in nature and he loves to engage me on my social media feeds.


He adores President Trump. I don't.
He thinks Brexit is a great idea. I don't.
I think he thinks a wall along the southern US border would solve a lot of problems. I think it's a fool errand.He thinks climate change is either a hoax or just nature doing it's thing. I'm worried and believe that humans have had a profound impact on the environment.

But we engage each other as people, and so when we agree, we do, and when don't, we say so!

What we don't do is call each other names. One element of our periodic debate is that he is always respectful towards me and this encourages me to continue to be respectful to him. He'll never change my mind (or at least I don't think he will) about certain issues and I will never change his. He has corrected me when I've been wrong, and I accept that. But we talk (at least electronically) and we know that, even in our separate churches, we share the same communion table and follow the same Lord. 

One thing I avoid doing on the interwebs is reading the comments. For every little clever gem that gets posted there is a dump-truck full of dross. Call me a hypocrite... I will periodically comment, and I suppose that my gem is someone else's dross. But this does lower my blood pressure, it also means that this just adds to my digital isolation.

So he does me a service, for which I am grudgingly grateful. You see, I am like a lot of users of the internet. I have my favorite sites and either by answering certain questions or liking certain sites and posts, the almighty algorithm has figured out what I like and feeds me more of it. If it weren't for my buddy, I might think that the whole universe agrees with my obviously enlightened and well-reasoned positions on nearly everything.

Call it an echo-chamber. Or a silo. Or whatever, I live there. 

My pal helps me see the world a bit more broadly. And sometimes that reveals to me some things that are pretty darned ugly. 

Yesterday my twitter and FB exploded with posts claiming that Greta Thunberg, who spoke at the UN this week, and the thousands of young people who went on climate strike last week have somehow been brainwashed by, I don't know, somebody. And their objections come down to something like "Isn't it terrible to use a child in this way!" 

This appeared in the New York Times today:

Fox News apologized after a pundit, Michael Knowles, called her “a mentally ill Swedish child” on one of its programs on Monday. (Ms. Thunberg, who is 16, has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, and has called it “superpower.”) The network called the comment disgraceful, and a spokeswoman said Fox had no plans to invite Mr. Knowles back.
Mr. Knowles, who writes for the conservative news site The Daily Wire, defended his remarks on Twitter, where he accused Ms. Thunberg’s supporters of exploiting her. The notion that she was being used as a puppet was repeated by others, including the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza.

The day before Ms. Thunberg’s United Nations speech, Mr. D’Souza likened her image to ones used in Nazi propaganda, posting a photo on Twitter of Ms. Thunberg, wearing her signature long braids, next to an illustration of a young woman with a similar hairstyle standing in front of a swastika flag.  
Other outspoken figures on the right sounded similar notes. Sebastian Gorka, who worked in the White House briefly under President Trump, wrote on Twitter that Ms. Thunberg’s remarks were “disturbingly redolent of a victim of a Maoist ‘re-education’ camp.”
Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, called Ms. Thunberg’s United Nations speech “chilling” on her Monday night show, and ran a segment about how climate change “hysteria” is changing American youth.
The segment included a clip from “Children of the Corn,” the 1984 movie based on a Stephen King novel in which children in a farm town murder adults. 
Now nothing gets me riled up quite like seeing otherwise adult people piling on a kid. Even a kid as articulate and media-savvy as Greta Thunberg. But just as I was getting the most riled up, I have had to stop myself. If it is wrong for people to treat Thunberg this way, then why is it okay for me or the people I happen to agree with to do it?

Ethics are pesky that way. 

Case in point: yesterdays address to the United Nations by President Donald Trump. He basically said that the way of the future is nationalism unleashed. Every nation for itself. Never mind that both fascism and communism were defeated by the concerted, combined efforts of the nations of the world (at the cost of a great many lives along the way). Never mind that everything from international travel to mailing a postcard overseas to being able to telephone or e-mail a person across the globe or share information in the internet are all possible with international cooperation. And you would think that being such a fan of capitalism, the idea that international markets--and the possibility of making and selling lots of things--are only enhanced by these international relationships. 

But no! According to his address at the UN yesterday, It is every nation for itself. Borders are beautiful. Cooperation is for losers. 

Now it would be easy for me to fall into the same trap... I think that the idea of decreasing international cooperation and feuding with other nations over more and more things we used to work out together in places like the UN and the dozens of international conventions that govern our global common life is is a very bad idea. These conventions and organizations have done much to preserve peace and extend prosperity over the past 75 years. They are not perfect but they sure beat the heck out of the alternatives! 

It's when we fall into the trap of resorting to name-calling and character assassination that trouble me. It is easy to do, and so difficult to stop. 

When we are start being strident towards our neighbor, filling our language with bluster, implied threat, and imputed motives that the seeds for disharmony and misunderstanding grows. We might feel the short term rush of having silenced the other guy or putting our opposition in its place, but we have created the seeds for future conflict that will eventually consume us all. 

I firmly believe that one of the ways we overcome the games, manipulation, and the drama is to keep cool. So just as I think people shouldn't beat up on Greta Thunberg, I think it is unhelpful to only pile on insults and characterization on the President or anyone else we disagree with.

Everyday ethics, not to mention being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus, means that we tell the truth, and we that we respect the people we are telling it to. We must name evil for what it is. We must not think that doing evil to fight evil will somehow result in a good. We must do the things that evil hates.

Don't get me wrong. Satire and humor are essential. The best satire gets us to think about issues differently. And one of the first signs that a person is too wrapped up in themselves or that their view of the world is too constrained is when they lose the ability to laugh at themselves. So keep it up Trevor and Stephen! 

I have a feeling that as we move into this new phase, with talk of impeachment in the air, we won't need to exaggerate or pontificate. We need to stay cool and focused. The true character of a lot of people will come to fore all on their own. And while bringing out the worst in people might create a short term gain, in the end the people who build themselves up by tearing others down will ultimately be crushed under the weight of their own debris.

And the same thing is true for responding to climate change and caring for our environment. Do what we must to get the conversation going: protest, petition, organize, teach the science, plan realistic responses, and all the rest. Yup, even satirize. We won't need to exaggerate or beat up on those who either disagree with us or, especially, on those who don't understand the problem. 

At the same time, we will need to deal with the fact that there will be those who won't mind or care if their behavior is unethical or sensational in order to make their points or to stop this movement. Don't let them deter you. 

As we move into a new phase, with both impeachment and global warming in the air, and with an election just around the corner, we will have to deal with a lot of hype, a lot of emotion, and a lot of spin. Opportunities for hate and division abound. 

Scripture is filled with good advice about watching one's mouth. These days it's not just the tongue that can get us in trouble but our keyboards and our memes. First Peter 3:10 comes to mind which reads “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.” 

I am reminded over and over again that the line between being a prophetic witness and a total jerk is pretty fine. So it is important to speak truth and also to mind my mouth. 

If we are going to get anywhere on effecting real change when it comes to climate, poverty, racism, and social division, it will be essential for us to balance our clarity with our charity. Speak the truth. Hold fast. Lead with love.

The thing that I am learning from my pal is how to listen and how to be more articulate, and how not to resort to cheap shots, distracting accusations, or easy characterizations. If a cause is worth the struggle, it is worth doing honorably.





Monday, September 23, 2019

Forgiveness is the beginning of reconciliation


Maybe it's me. But that parable we just heard Deacon Fran read in today's Gospel doesn't sound very Jesus like. You know what I mean? 
In truth, people have been trying to figure out what in the world Jesus was talking about in this Parable of the Dishonest Manager ever since he first spoke it! As far as this story in Luke 16 goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways!

Let's recap.
There are two characters in today's Gospel, a rich man and his manager. The manager has been embezzling funds and taking kickbacks, so the rich man is about to fire him. The manager catches wind of this, so he gets to work. He goes to his master’s clients and he reduces their bills. They are grateful both to the manager and to the rich man who suddenly so generous.
Now let’s be clear here. The manager is not a hero for fixing a problem that he himself created! And you might think that when the rich man found out that his manager had cheated him—again!—he would call for the tar and feathers. But no! Jesus, who is telling this story, said that the “master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Why? Because “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” And it gets weirder when Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Uhm. What?
Are you baffled? I am! Jesus words just don’t seem to line up. I mean, there’s nothing in the Sermon on the Mount like, “Blessed are the shrewd, for they shall make eternal homes by means of dishonest wealth.”
Remember, just as Jesus’ parables about farming are not really about farms, neither are his parables about business really about business. At least not the Wharton School sense.
So just what did the manager do that was so terrible? He forgave the clients’ debts! Well, that sort of rings a bell, doesn’t it? How does “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” sound? Yup. That's right! This parable is about forgiveness!
But you know, if I could give Jesus just a little suggestion, it would be this. You know, Jesus, if you wanted to talk about forgiveness, why didn’t you just say, “There was this guy who had a lot of people owing him money. He could have been a jerk about it, but he said, OK, you guys don’t have to pay, and everyone lived happily ever after.”
Because our God is a God who doesn’t let us get away with easy answers. And forgiveness in real life is rarely neat, easy, or simple.
Think of the ways that our relationships can sometimes get all tangled up and snarled. Like the times you’ve been between a rock and a hard place, knowing that any decision you make will hurt someone. Or the times you’ve been driven by circumstances to a place where compromising your integrity seems like a small price to pay if it will just get you out of this mess.
Now Jesus’ story of the Dishonest Manager begins to sound more real, if not more sensible.
Through Jesus’ life, death, and life, God offers forgiveness openly, freely and without restraint. There is nothing we can ever do that will cause us to earn God’s love and, at the same time, nothing can take God’s love away from us! There is no way we will ever be anything less than God’s most cherished children, no matter how many mistakes we make or people we hurt. We are forgiven even before we know we are going to do wrong, because Jesus loved us even unto death.
And knowing that forgiveness is ours for the asking at every step of the way, how can we not want to try it out ourselves?
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” That’s what happens in this parable. The dishonest manager is forgiven even as he forgives others.
 It’s not neat and tidy and clean cut. There are still loose ends and ethical questions and uncertainty. That’s because forgiveness is the beginning of ethics, not the end.
Thank God that we are not God. We are human, and our motives are always mixed. We do not love perfectly. And we mess up even when we’re trying to do the right thing. But holiness of living doesn’t come from never messing up. It comes from depending on God and acknowledging our limitedness and brokenness even as we gradually master the habits of faithful living.
If we waited to forgive each other until we had perfect charity in our hearts, we’d be here until the apocalypse. Jesus says don’t wait till your perfect, just do it. Forgive. Forgive people even if you know they’re wrong. Forgive people when you know you’re wrong. Forgive people when you don’t feel like it, when they aren’t talking to you, when you aren’t talking to them, when you don’t have time. Forgive people you’ve never met, forgive atrocities so big you are afraid to forgive them, forgive faults so small you are ashamed that they bother you. Forgive even if you’ve done it a thousand times; forgive even if you’ve never forgiven before.
Seriously, right now, where you’re sitting, think of someone who is just making you furious or at the very least driving you batty. It could be the guy who cut you off in traffic; it could be your son or daughter who is “throwing their life away.” It could be your spouse who never remembers to take out the garbage. It could be the sibling or friend who hurt and betrayed you so badly that you haven’t spoken in years. Just do it! In your mind, say to that person , “I forgive you.”
Feel better? That's okay. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel anything. Maybe you felt an overwhelming rush of love and grace, or maybe you still feel cranky and self-righteous or just plain mad. Or maybe... meh, nothing! It doesn’t matter. You’ve taken the first step.
You see, isn't a feeling. It's a decision. Forgiveness is the decision to stop organizing your life around another person’s injury to you. It doesn’t mean something bad never happened or that there are no consequences. It doesn't mean that history gets rewritten or that the relationship going forward will suddenly be hunky-dory. Forgiveness means that the injury will no longer be the organizing principal of your life.
When you say, "I forgive," alongside whatever else is in your heart right now – anger, fear, disappointment – there is also a little seed of forgiveness that has sprouted, especially when you begin to realize what it means that God has forgiven you through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus . This is how the Holy Spirit has been gracefully going before you making you ready to forgive and know forgiveness.
There’s a bit of the Dishonest Manager in all of us, wheeling and dealing in front of God and trying to “manage” other people’s feeling. Jesus tells us today that he sees right through all of that and right through us to where "all desires are knows and (where) no secrets are hid" – and forgives us anyway!
Let’s face it. We cannot comprehend God’s forgiveness. But in Christ, we are—against all odds—forgiven! And the grace is that God forgives us even when we can’t forgive others with the generosity and grace that we long for. Taking hold of that unimaginable grace changes us and the way we see others… which is how we can start to forgive others as we’ve been forgiven.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Recalling 9/11 18 years later

I remember where I was. I had just put my daughter on the school bus. My brother called to tell me that my niece was in the hospital about ready to deliver a baby boy. I was loading my bags into a car to go to the airport. I was going to fly to New York City to interview for a chaplaincy position--- but plans changed when the attacks happened and the planes weren't flying anyway. I called them and said something like "you folks are probably up to your eyeballs in alligators, so call me when we can reschedule." 

They did. I went in almost a month to the day later and the folks were still pretty shell-shocked and the interview was pretty perfunctory and did not lead to a job. Without much bidding on my part, the conversation would shift from them talking about me and my skills, to the group and their experience. After weeks in intensely shepherding others through this time, they had yet to fully process their own emotions, which was a completely normal and natural response, but still unsettling for those experiencing them.

But the trip wasn't wasted. A week or so after the attacks I got a call from a person who did employee health for the Salvation Army. He had been given my name as someone trained in Critical Incident Stress Management. They were putting together a debriefing and some other emotional and spiritual support services for their personnel who had been on-site at Ground Zero since the day of the attacks. A lot of these folks had been working non-stop for a month and needed to go home for rest. But first, they needed to process their experiences. 

So a team was put together, mainly from the upper mid-west... that was because all the trained CISM personnel and teams in the New York and Washington areas were busy, and a few of these very folks were the folks that we would be de-briefing! 

So after my rounds of interviews in New York for the job that would never be, I came to  Allentown for a series of small group debriefings, large group training sessions, and one on one meetings. 


Flags in Marietta, OH after 9/11
The whole experience was a rush of images and emotions. I had to marvel, because I wasn't even there... I was a distant witness watching things unfold on television or over the car radio. I could not imagine what it was like for people living through it. And the closer I got to the city, the more intense things became. 

I saw lots and lots of American flags on the drive out from Ohio to Pennsylvania. People put up signs and impromptu memorials. Staying with relatives outside the city, I took the train into New York. I was struck by the big plywood wall in Penn Station, probably put up as a construction barrier, that was now covered with signs and posters of peoples names and pictures. People looking for the lost or missing, which was taking on more and more the look of a memorial.

Some of the things I saw were disturbing... scrawled signs at roadsides or in front lawns as I drove encouraging us to kill all Arabs and Muslims, often using unashamed racist language. There was one billboard that stood out to me because it was so angry: the text read "Your courts, your schools, and your government are anti-Christian!" pointing people to an 800 number and some kind of (so-called) ministry. Seeing that while driving through Appalachia gave me a shudder... were we growing our own form of Taliban? It made me wonder about the depths and complexity of the hatreds in our world.

One of the things that I recall the most was the signs demanding revenge or retribution were thickest farthest away from the disaster. The closer one got, the more often the sign asked for prayer or patriotic support. Of course, in the city there was wall of pictures of the missing.

Meeting people who had rolled up their sleeves to the impossible work of rescue, recovery, and disaster response, was a whole other matter. These people were not filled with hate but with a kind of determined compassion to find life wherever they could. The thing about chaplaincy and trauma work with first responders, medical personnel, and those who work in public safety is one is blessed to witness people who rarely forgot their humanity, no matter how bad things got. In fact, it was the sensory overload of so much awareness-- so much compassion for so much pain in so little time-- that was at the heart of the stress they were experiencing. 

Being a priest and chaplain to such people, even we had never met before, was humbling. Because of the rawness and immediacy of their experiences, they rarely had difficulty connecting the dots between their work and God's mercy, or of the mystery of love in the face of evil. They rarely used "god-language" but they told sacred stories. Sometimes one would get "why" questions, but way more often I heard, unbidden, stories of the holy showing up in unexpected, ruined, places. 

My little team worked three different groups who were being "de-mobilized." Other teams did more. There were that many volunteers who had gone to Ground Zero. My particular groups were comprised of people who had worked nearest the disaster scene for the longest hours. None of these folks were amateurs. They had all worked everything from house-fires to tornadoes to hurricanes. But everyone of these said that this was the most devastation they had ever witnessed and the most intense. They told stories of what stood out for them: one person helped the local humane society care for the dogs brought in to search for survivors and later the ones brought in search for bodies. Another talked about giving first aide to firefighters and construction workers who had been digging through rubble sometimes with bare hands. Others spoke about the hours spent talking to the workers from the towers and the surrounding neighborhood as well as residents. One chaplain spoke about his work with members of the city department of sanitation and what it was like to sweep up all that office paper that littered the streets after being blown out of the buildings. 

After I came to my parish, I found that some of the experiences of that day would filter into our life from unexpected places. I did spiritual care for two dying persons, who were deeply touched by 9/11 even though they were never in the Twin Towers. One had a scheduled breakfast meeting at Windows of the World, but his doctor called him the day before and insisted that he go to his office on Tuesday morning. This caused him to cancel the breakfast meeting, which saved his life and the lives of those he was to meet. But the doctor needed to tell him that he had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. 

Another parishioner worked in the North tower but got out when the first plane hit the South Tower and, unlike so many others, did not go back in. She worked near the bottom of the tower anyway, so all of her co-workers survived the attack. Still, when she left lower Manhattan covered with soot, she was either shunned by people who knew where she must have been and were frightened or else doted up and cared for by many others. 

Yet another parishioner was just settling into a new office in New Jersey having the week before moved from a former office in the Twin Towers, to witness the attack from across the river. 

Our diocesan clergy day later in September, 2001, included a summary of a conference taking place at Trinity Wall Street with the Archbishop of Canterbury when the attacks happened. We heard of how they were evacuated and sent to South Ferry where they had no place to go and how he was taken away on a ferry boat but could not get back into the city to get his stuff from his mid-town hotel room. 

I interviewed with my present congregation's search committee just before the attacks by teleconference and met with their representatives a week or so afterwards when they came out to hear me preach but before my trip east. It was strangely hopeful to hear them talk about their 9/11 experiences and then turn to talk of the future of this parish in this community in the same conversation. 

Looking back over the last nineteen years, I am struck at how much people have healed and how little it takes to bring people back to that moment. For people who have been born since then and are only now reaching adulthood, the events are at once abstract and defining. They don't know what it was like, but they do not know a world "before 9/11."

Our parish hosted community prayer services on the first and tenth anniversaries of the attacks and this coming weekend we will hold an interfaith prayer service in our sanctuary. For me, the day is a remembrance that can never hide or distort the real sense of horror and fear of the attacks, and also it allows to recall and reclaim the resilience that marks so much of our response at the time and in the nearly two decades since. 

Monday, September 02, 2019

A table big enough for all

I remember when I first came to this parish as a candidate to be your rector back in 2001. The search committee took me on a tour of the plant and the city; and, of course, they showed me the church. 

And one of the stories they told me the story about how in the 1990’s, the parish went through a process of looking at the worship space led by my predecessor, Canon Cliff Carr. The entire interior was being re-painted and the chancel—the space between the rood screen and the altar rail—was being redone.

Out went the old fixed choir stalls, some of which were re-purposed for other uses, like the shelves and the doors in the back, or else simply relocated. I marveled at the beauty of the work and thought to myself "If this parish calls me, it will be wonderful! And I will never have to do a major renovation or building project!" (Well... it is wonderful!)

But the thing that those folks—some of you!—were the most proud of was that free-standing altar over there. And it is lovely! Hand carved and beautifully made, after twenty year or so, it is hard to imagine this space without it. 

[It was made by Don Lockard's studio, Eisenhardt Mills in Forks Township, and by Nick Strange presently of The Century Guild, of Graham, North Carolina, in the late 1990's. Strange's other ecclestiastical works include, among other things, the cabinetry for the new organ at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, New York City. The cross and the fruit carved on the front were painted and colored by our own Doodie Guenthner, who died last week, and during her life with us also did several other works in our parish such as our Stations of the Cross.]

But I remember another response. Once, we hosted a regional gathering of clergy and the bishop celebrated, and the comment I received the most was: “it’s awfully small.”
It’s true. Go and look at the altar in the chapel, which is much bigger.

I’m used to it, so I don’t give it a second thought. I have learned how to position the book-stand, and the offering plates, even the cereal boxes, so that there is still plenty of room to bless and consecrate the bread and wine of communion, for you all all to see what we’re up to.

And besides, the craftsman who built this altar knew what he was about. Visually the piece fits our space perfectly, it doesn’t get lost behind the rood screen, in fact fits perfectly within that frame, and the high altar and reredos are the perfect backdrop. We can walk around it even when the chancel is full. It works.

But it is small.

Or is it?

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus is at table eating with his friends—and his enemies—and his frenemies. He did that a lot, actually. Much of what we know of Jesus’ teaching comes from his table talk. Luke says in this snippet that while Jesus was eating the Pharisees were watching him closely. They wanted to see what he was up to.

Jesus had this habit, you see, of doing something unexpected while eating with his companions, peers, and challengers. Like when a woman bursts into the room weeping, and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. Or when someone cuts a hole through the roof to lower a sick person down on a pallet to be healed. Or how at the last supper Jesus washed his own disciples feet and declared that the bread they ate was his body and the wine they drank was his blood. Eating with Jesus can be full of surprises!
So Jesus is doing what Jesus does… teaching while they are all gathered around, reclining (as they did then), passing around the food, and conversing. A lot of Jesus’ teaching happened like this: questions and answers, give and take over a meal. And this time, he is talking over dinner about dinner etiquette. How everyday ethics turns on things like hospitality. How it is that how we treat each other at table is pretty good indicator of how we treat each other in life.

Jesus noticed that he was the guest of honor, even as they watched him like a hawk. He also noticed how the guests chose the places of honor and every one else sat in the cheap seats. The people who sat at the place of honor got the best food and the best service and everyone listened to their conversation, their witty banter, and their jokes; they laughed when they laughed and sneered at what they sneered at. But Jesus said that the ones looking from the outside in, were the honored ones. That the servants who brought the food were the most honored of all. That the humble ones will be the most exalted. He tells his followers not to invite the big-wigs and the powerful, because they can return the favor. Instead, Jesus said, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And because they cannot the favor there is blessing in the invitation.

Jesus is challenging all of our typical understanding of invitation, hospitality, fellowship, and community. His call changes our understanding of our service and outreach to the poor. He also challenges us to see the gap between those we believe are ok to go to church with and those Jesus is inviting into the community. And Jesus reminds us that when we invite someone to come to the table with us we are in fact welcoming them as full members of the family of Abraham.

Are we really willing to give someone else our place at the table? Can we hear Jesus say: “Behold, here is Sam or Frieda or whomever. Are you willing to meet them as they are and where they are?  Are you ready to give her or him your place at the table?”

Until we, the people of God; until we, the baptized members of Christ’s church can answer Jesus’ challenge honestly, and then do the opposite of what society or upbringing typically expects we will always be limited in our mission, in our outreach and service, in our evangelism. Our discernment of God’s imagination, and our ability to see the reign of God is directly connected to our ability to see the face of God in the people God brings to us everyday!

Every week a kind of miracle happens, we gather around that seemingly small altar and share in Christ’s body and blood. And we discover that feast is open to all, and that the banquet table is huge, humongous, and endless! All of God’s people gather around God’s table in every time, every place, in every kind of community. The table is as big as Christ’s hospitality, and our welcome is to be as expansive as God’s heart.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Rules are rules

She came to church every Sunday. Even long after her income was fixed, her offering came in like clockwork. For as long as she could she showed up at church suppers, studies, gatherings of small groups. She prayed. And when she was home-bound, she wrote notes to other sick and shut in members of the parish and congratulatory notes to those celebrating birthdays and baptisms. Many of her fellow parishioners were her longest, and closest friends.

But she was also a private person. Not given to announcing her needs, and always concerned that she not "be a bother." So when her terminal illness came, and hospice was called, the parish office was never officially notified. The right paper it seems was not filled out.

We were never invited to hospice team meetings. We never took part in her spiritual assessment. Our clergy or lay Eucharistic visitors were never a part of the care plan. We were not included in any call tree for when she would finally meet death.

Oh, we knew... this time. Bits and pieces. Here and there.

Her friends called my cell phone or stopped me after church or even came to the office, but whenever I called the house, her son promised me that he would let his mother know we called and were interested. We sent cards, altar flowers, along with the regular church communications. Our pastoral care team planned for her care, and a lay pastoral visitor would visit from time to time-- but it was chancy. She was a low-church kind of Episcopalian, so regular communion at home was not in her spectrum of observance. The counters tell me that her offering would arrive by mail like clockwork. But since a card or a note were attached to any of these, I am thinking that someone handling her affair took care of the offering, along with her other bills.

People in the parish would ask me how she was doing. After a while I would have to say, something like "I hear that she's in hospice, but I really don't know."

That's because Hospice was of no help. At all.

They were of zero help in allowing us to our part in the end of life care of their patient.

Twice I called the Hospice Nurse. Once I got through, on the second try. I don't know if the nice person who answered the phone passed along the message the first time, but she called me back on the second try.

I asked to meet with the Spiritual Care Coordinator, who is (I suppose) their chaplain. I have no idea of the person's credentials or training, but it doesn't matter. He or she never called me back.

I told the Hospice Nurse that I was the person's priest. That the patient had been a part of this parish for over sixty years and attended Sunday Eucharist every week. I told her that I would, first, like to visit the patient and second, would like to work with the Hospice on providing the spiritual care for their patient. I said I would make time to come to team meetings or meet with the social worker, nurse, or spiritual care coordinator at their convenience. I told that I knew that I was a "guest" in their system and emphasized that I was at their disposal. I was told that she would bring this to the Care Coordinator and to the patient's son and they would get back to me.

Crickets.

After a week. I called back. Left a message. No response.

I decided to take a crack at just showing up, and alas, I came at a time when the patient was sleeping (or "resting" I was told). I left a card. I asked the uniformed caregiver to please let the patient know I came and that I would like to come by.

Still more crickets.

A third time, I called and asked to be a guest at the Hospice team meeting. I told them that not only was I the person's priest, but that I was at one time a Hospice Chaplain, the member of a Palliative Care Team, worked on a state-wide bio-ethics panel, and was a Board Certified Chaplain.

The choir of crickets persisted.

Three days ago, the patient-- our parishioner-- died. A little detective work led us to the funeral home handling the arrangements. I know the funeral directors there, and have a great working relationship with them. They are professional, caring, and skillful at handling all the nuances of closing out our mortal lives, including the spiritual and pastoral issues. After a brief conversation where not much formal information was shared (but between us much was communicated), I can see where this is going.

Our long-time parishioner, with a lifetime of connection, story, service, and worship, will probably not be buried out of the parish and it is up in the air as to whether or not her pastor will even be invited to preside.

What's worse, is that a community (this parish community, and God knows how many of her community of friends) will be left to work out their grief solo, in the dark. The curtain of another life quietly drawn to a close with little or no comment or recognition.

And the place where she came to give her living meaning, hope, purpose, comfort, and direction, will have no opportunity to listen to their stories, share our story with those she loved, and her Gospel story will be will be left un-said at least in the context of a funeral.

Crickets.

Part of this is completely in keeping with our member's way of being. She was a quiet person, unfailingly polite, who never wanted to be a bother to anyone. I think that the idea of anyone making a fuss over her would seem mortifying. Still, I remember the Prayer Book she brought to church every week. Not only was it hers, but it was filled with old bulletins, pages torn out of the Anglican Digest with some prayer or meditation that meant something to her, prayer cards and Mass cards from other funerals, the ever present copy of this quarters Forward Day-by-Day behind the inside front cover. When I told her how to preserve the ribbons with dabs of clear nail polish, she told me of her sure-fire method of getting wrinkles out of purificators from her altar guild days.

So the sound of all those crickets at the end felt particularly painful and sad to me.

And, I'm betting dollars to little round doughnuts, that the spiritual care was being left to the wishes, whims, and biases of the primary care giver, who (as luck would have it) was estranged from anything spiritual let alone religious.

Imagine having a Jewish patient being ministered to by Catholic priest or a Scientologist because that was the affiliation of the primary care nurse or the relative of the patient doing the care. Imagine if the doctor decided that only Mormons or Methodists would be allowed into the patient room. That would be wrong, right? Well, I think that was what was happening here. And not maliciously, but because no one was skilled enough to a proper pastoral and spiritual assessment.

Usually, in my experience, the whole range of the ways people frame their meaning and spiritual life is boiled down to two questions: "Do you have a church?" and "Do you want to call your priest/pastor/rabbi/imam right now?" Two questions designed to elicit a range of unpacked feelings and no action.

Which is why I had this awful feeling that big part of this person's end-of-life care was being left out.

A big chunk of this, though, is my fault. Not in the actions of me or this parish in the months and weeks leading up to her death.. We did all we could and then some to care for our sister in Christ. No, it's my fault because a long time ago I was apart of a committee that helped create rules to formally protect a patient's privacy when they are in the healthcare system. In the 1990's, there was this big inter-disciplinary committee meeting in Washington, DC, called together to form rules and regulations regarding patient privacy and confidentiality.  I was there. Among the handful of pastoral caregivers in the group.

We were not a united voice, though. One person wanted to lobby for allowing chaplains and pastors to bill for their services (a non-starter), others wanted to protect patients from being proselytized, others wanted to allow free access for evangelists, there were ethicists, ritualists, and God-knows who else all wanting to have their piece of the regulatory pie. In the end,  there were two factions: one was the pastor-is-part-of-the-care-team faction and the other was the privacy-at-costs-faction. We came up with compromise rules that basically said that it's up to the patient, no matter how sick, or their family to contact the pastor and that the parish pastor could make no record of their work and no contact with the rest of the care team unless a particular hospital, hospital, or agency thought of it. Which they never do.

Later on, working out of my hospital in West Virginia, I was part of another interdisciplinary team that developed never-before-envisioned protocols for care at the end of life that covered everything from pre-hospital care, to pain management, and spiritual care. And we managed to include the clergy in the congregations with both effectiveness and efficiency.

So, when you add that to the hours of clinical training and patient care time... well, let's just say that this ain't my first rodeo.

Now I get the privacy issues loud and clear. When I was clinical chaplain through the 80's and 90's, mainly in small-town community or Catholic hospitals, and also in a hospital owned by a big for-profit corporation,  I had to deal far too often with staff who loved to gossip about patients, or people they knew who came through our doors. I once had to fire a staff member for blabbing intimate medical details of persons she encountered. I don't regret doing that for one second. But loose lips sinking ships is not what I am talking about here.

What I am talking about is the unintended, but perfectly foreseeable, consequence of the current state of the HIPPA rules. And that is the culture of circling the wagons and the need for a variety of reasons of limiting information to the chosen few.

There is a kind of gnosis at work under the guise of patient confidentiality that says essentially that if the person can't charge for their time, or is not paid by the caregiving agency or institution, then they can't get in. Even if their work has a direct impact on the patient's well-being.

I have a strange feeling that if way could be found a way to turn the ordinary pastoral care of clergy, lay visitors, and Eucharistic ministers into a billable service from which the healthcare entity could take a cut, then we'd have no trouble getting our foot in the door. For all the talk about "caring for the whole person, body, mind, and spirit" that hospitals and hospices love to advertise, it is far too easy to boil it down to billable services and patient volume. You know... "no margin, no mission!"

By the time I finish writing about this, the chart will have been completed, the charge-master closed as soon as the last reimbursement is received, and the next patient will have been admitted.

But the things that pastoral ministry cares about-- helping a person make meaning out of their living and their dying, sitting with the person as they recount some small (but vitally important) piece of their story, the permission to admit that illness is a pain in the ass, and that death is scary to a person who will just accept the observation and not try to fix it, and above all the ability to take part in the ancient rituals that humans have developed over millennia of experience and wisdom will not have taken place.

In addition, no one will process with the family and loved one the connects and the disconnects between the dying persons way of making meaning and their own. No one will look at the preferred or hoped for way of dying with the actual experience. No one will walk the person through the work of making meaning out of  can be a concurrently beautiful and terrible experience.

Sure, I get that the caring son who never left his mom's side was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist who never fully understood why his mom wanted to go to church every week while he sat in the car reading the Sunday New York Times. I even admire his faithfulness in bringing her! I wish that I had the chance to listen to his story of how he came to his spot and how that intersected with the care for his dying parent.

But rules are rules, you know.

Here's what we miss in our permission-first culture. It's the wonderful secret I know from years of doing rounds and popping in on parishioners and from hanging out with the retired guys who meet once a week for breakfast at the diner: holy stories happen.

You can't engineer them or plan them. The technique is the discipline not to have any technique.

There is wisdom in those stories. And Gospel in those encounters. There is holy history in the everyday encounter between the holy and the human... stories of change, of hope, of opportunities missed, and transformation experienced, of relationships broken, fizzled out, healed, or persisted over years.

Meaning is made and revealed when conversation happens. Anton Boisen, the founder of modern Clinical Pastoral Education, knew what he was talking about when he said that the people he encountered as a chaplain were "living human documents." People have stories to tell. People are stories that are waiting to be told and shared. And they come out with a wonderful spontaneity, if only you have the ears to listen.

I believe that everyone has something to celebrate and something to confess. Everyone needs affirmation and absolution. The trick is that it has to happen in every person's own time and in every person's own language. Now matter how traditional or how out-of-whatever-the-faith-box a person might be, they need the space, permission, and time to process. And a skilled practitioner of the pastoral arts helps that along tremendously.

I believe that in the telling and hearing of these stories, healing happens. And I believe that someone who can hear and appreciate and bless those stories in acknowledging that those moments were holy and that God (however they know God) is in both the living and the telling. I believe that this happens whatever the person's tradition might be, it happens for people of faith or no-faith, because we are who we are.

And the rituals that we are empowered by our traditions to lead... the prayers, the sacraments, the rites (even the last ones)... or, for that matter, the ones that we invent, are part of this artistic and symbolic language that points us to the holy. They help us navigate the awesome, unknowable, and tangible mystery that is life and death.

The process works best if the practitioner-- chaplain, priest, rabbi, imam, nun, LEV, lay reader, whatever-- can get in the room and actually do their work! So many of us train and practice and work to be present for, and sometimes facilitate, the person-centered process of spiritual care, and yet.....

All too often, when I have been called in it has been after the person has died. Perhaps for last rites, perhaps "to say a few words" at a memorial, or to preside at the funeral mass. I don't denigrate that work one little bit. It is an honor to be present to guide and help folks make meaning in those moments. It is a pastoral companionship of it's particular pattern and form.

But way too often, the work of doing that with the person, before they've died, and accompanying them--and their loved ones--through that final passage is denied and people are left alone to make what they will from that time, because, you know, rules are rules.

In the end, as a colleague puts it, God always shows up! The holy happens. Even as we bumble our way through protocols, policies, procedures, and other secular rituals of modern health care, divine caring happens. I am so impressed with the dignity and care of the countless paramedics and EMTs, nurses and allied health professionals, doctors and physician assistants, unit secretaries and admissions clerks, Hospice and acute care professionals, who extend towards the dying and their loved ones remarkable presence, dignity, skill, and compassion. I firmly believe that God's love is concretely expressed in the work of all these folks.

But imagine, just imagine, what it might have meant to that person to not only see her (or any) pastor, but to have the freedom to say anything she wanted from "can you pray for me" to "here's my story" to "get the hell out!" To have a person trained and tuned to listen and to accompany them as they make meaning of their life's story in the closing chapter of their living. Imagine what it might mean for the family to have a person who is at once a trained, experienced pastor, and a person conversant in medical ethics walk with them as they make some of the most difficult decisions they will ever have to make.

I'm just sad when once again, that me and this faith community were not given the chance to do our part, to bring a lifetime of experience and even just a smidge of that millennia of wisdom, to the bedside of another dying parishioner because some form wasn't signed, some protocol not met, some third party payer decided it wasn't reimbursable, and some administrator decided that there were other fish to fry.