Lent has always been a very meaningful time in my life…at least for the last 20 years or so. But this year is has been even more important. Around Christmas time there was just too much going on in my life at the same time and it was creating a lot of distress for me. In short order, my relationship of six years broke up, I got pneumonia (and then pleurisy) was very sick for five weeks (several relapses) and then that turned into a bad sinus infection. On top of all of that I was involved in trying my best to successfully end my immediate period of discernment for Holy Orders in the Episcopal church in South Carolina. Too many issues, too much stress and poor health do not a good combination make. It was all kind of dragging me down when I began to consider how I was going to respond to Lent this year. Normally, I give up some things that are difficult for me to do without: usually, wine, bread and coffee. Last year I decided that I would no longer give up coffee…it was too stressful. This year I not only decided to approach things differently, but I gave up something that had been bothering me for a while and taking a great deal of time: Facebook. I decided that giving that up and coupling in with the adoption of a defined period of QUIET would be helpful. And it has been. Not discussing everything that is going on in my life has been enormously helpful. Just limiting my interactions and realizing I did not have to have a part in every conversation I am exposed to…has created a much less tension filled time and given me the opportunity to do some very constructive work. Being quiet has helped me to see God’s hand in my life in a much clearer way. It has also helped me to make some decisions about the future. I think I am finished with Facebook. I do not plan to go back after Easter. I will find a way to connect with my large number of internet “friends” by using email and messaging more frequently but my time on Facebook (and Twitter and all the others) has come to an end. SO I am going to end this brief post by encouraging you to consider just being quiet for a while. In my experience, it can be enormously helpful. I also should tell you that about three months ago I disconnected my television and the cable connection and now follow the news each day in the New York Times and our local Charleston newspaper. Disconnecting from the daily hysteria of cable news has been another revelation. The hysteria that carries on day after day on all the cable news stations (even those whose political slant I agree with) is nothing more than a continued search for ratings. It is simply not helpful or necessary. Believe me, I continue to be very well informed, So consider turning it all off…or if not off…lower the volume. You might be surprised how much better you feel.
In my work as a hospice chaplain I am blessed to spend time with patients at the end of their life. My interactions are always unpredictable. I never know what will take place until I open a patient’s door and discover what God has in store for us. So much of what I find myself doing is a spontaneous reaction to the situation I discover. I like that, because responding in the moment to what is happening in front of me always seems to tell me that I am listening to God and letting God direct me. (I say that not as a boast because I am quite convinced that this is a gift of God’s Grace and can be done by anyone who feels the call to help another in any way they can). In a Lenten bible study this morning at Grace Church Cathedral in Charleston SC, the subjects of guilt, redemption and reconciliation came up in a lively discussion. It reminded me of the many conversations I have with terminal patients when I ask them a simple question “is anything bothering you or causing you distress?” This is a reframing of a question hospice chaplains are required to ask of every new patient by Medicare. The real question is “Do you have any existential or spiritual concerns?” which quite frequently evokes a response like “Huh? What does existential mean?” So I have found it is easier to ask that important question in more simple and straightforward terms and it seems to work much better to delve into what my patients are thinking about. Sadly, I have found that many are worried that they have led their lives in ways that would not please God. Or they have done something that has made them ashamed of the way they have lived their life. At the end of life, shame and guilt are almost palpable and it saddens me. At the same time it brings up the question I often ask “is your God a loving God or a Vengeful God?” I ask that a lot of people who seem to be straining under the burden of guilt. And it often provokes a brief life review where it is frequently possible to help a patient reframe their life and find some reconciliation with God. Most of us feel that God is a Loving God and that the stories of retribution and blood sacrifices can stay safely tucked mercifully in the Old Testament where they describe a life of animal sacrifices in the Temple and the fear that went along with that life that Christ’s death ended for Christians once and for all. That Christ died for our sins is the reality of the Christian faith. And it is an important reality because “God, our heavenly Father…didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” If you understand that passage from Holy Eucharist Rite 1, then you know that by Jesus’ selfless act for us that resulted in his death, he ended for all time the need for sacrifices of all kinds. That is what he did for us…sacrificed his life so that no sacrifices were needed by the children he created and loves. I see God as an overwhelmingly loving force who is ALWAYS ready to forgive our errors, bad choices and yes… Sins. Who ALWAYS gives us the ability to pick ourselves up when we fall, dust ourselves off and go back into the game. Who ALWAYS loves us…not in spite of our faults and failures but WITH them. Because he knowingly created us a people prone to error and bad choices and because of this he is always ready to give us another chance…no matter how badly we think we have failed. That is not the promise of an angry tyrant but of a loving God who wants nothing but the best for us all. And I have found that this understanding of God can help the most desperate and soul sick person find the Grace that is Gods greatest gift.
I was talking with a passenger in my ride share vehicle the other day and she told me that she talked with God all the time but he didn’t know if God was speaking to her. That is an interesting subject. There are many times during the day that I speak to God. If I’m feeling stressed, or sad or anxious I will pause briefly and try to turn my concerns over to God. If I am overwhelmed by by brutality and violence of our world, I will open my heart to God and wordlessly ask him for help. I think most of us are capable of doing this…and doing this regularly is a good thing but something I think we need to practice. I remember when I was learning to play the guitar there were so many things I needed to learn and get good at before I could really enjoy the experience. When we learn anything, a new language, how to play a musical instrument, how to draw or to understand philosophy (or just about anything else) we need to learn a lot to get started and then we need to practice to increase our ability. I think it is the same with God. No…I don’t think God needs to learn much or to practice daily…but we do and for two reasons. The first is that talking with God is a way of developing a relationship. We make friends with people slowly…getting to know them and what they are about and then getting comfortable with them before sharing our deepest thoughts and feelings. Just as we would not do this with a stranger, we need to get comfortable with God and practicing talking with him on a regular basis is a great way to do that. It may seem odd when we begin…but if we initiate the conversation regularly the strangeness goes away and we can become more open and more comfortable with the process. The second reason is that I don’t know about you, but I have never heard God’s voice. So, you might ask, if you haven’t heard his voice how can we talk with him and know what he wants for us. And here I think is the most inspirational part of all of this. When we become more aware of the seemingly random things that are happening to us in our lives, we have the ability to try to understand if God is speaking to us without words. Is he moving us along, giving us important choices, sending us to do the work that needs to be done in this world to fulfill his promise and make this a better, more “Christ centered” world? I truly believe that God is involved in our lives every minute of every day. Think about the strange coincidences that happen in your life. Most of us call these unexpected happenings “coincidences”. I do not. I call the, “God Incidences”. God sets the stage for us to walk across and God opens the doors that we can then walk through. My life has been a long series of “God incidences” that have formed me, taught me and protected me. God is with me eternally and at all times. Once we open ourselves to the possibilities that God is leading us on a certain path…all of a sudden as if in a revelation we see what we need to do. So spend some time this week thinking about what God is leading you to do. Look for the opportunities that are presenting themselves. I am sure you have heard it said quite frequently that God has a plan for us. When we are confused or depressed about the state of something in our lives it may be because we do not understand what that plan is and how what is happening in our lives fits into it. Identifying what God is giving us right now…is a means of hearing his voice and doing the things we wants us to do. We are never alone. God is with us guiding us, shaping us and loving us. All we need to do is to look for those “God incidences” in our lives and continue to build our relationship. Commitment, and practice (as with almost anything we try to do can connect us deeply with the love, support and understanding that is our gift of Grace.
We live in a multicultural society here in Charleston. Although demographics tell us that the city has now switched from 70% black and 30% white to 30% black and 70% white within the last 10 years (due mostly to the major increase in property values) we still live in a diverse place. So if you look at the people who you choose to have around you (not those you work with necessarily) what percentage of those are people of color? I think we need to ask ourselves this question and answer it honestly. If we are living mainly in a sea of white (or brown) faces…why? Of course there are many reasons we choose to associate with people who are “like” us., But in this age of growing multiculturisn , I think it is important for us all to question if we are making any kind of effort towards diversity in our lives. If we look at our friends and see a “coat of many colors”…well that is a wonderful thing and I think it is what God wants for us. If, on the other had, we find ourselves surrounded only by people to look, talk and think like us….well then I think we have some work to do. Let’s reach across the racial divide and make friends. It will take a bit of work but it’s really quite simple to ask someone who is not “like” us to have a quick word which might lead to understanding which might lead to a shared cup of coffee which might lead to a shared friendship.. it is up to each of us to reach out to all of the other children God created and to bring them into our lives. That is God’s purpose for us: to get beyond our outer coverings and realize the Grace of God that surrounds us like a protective, warm blanket and to touch the essence of each person we meet.
-Every person…every day is an opporunity to spread God’s love to the world. Or as the old song goes”Reach out and touch, somebody’s hand, make this a better world if you can.”
Reach Out Today!
There is so much going on in my life right now but much of it is made by me. I have made a decision to try to be quiet this year during the 40 days of Lent. My purpose in doing this is to make space for me to try to hear what God wants me to do at this time. I have tried without success to arrange a retreat at Mepkin Abbey (their retreats are all booked up during this time). So I have decided to create my own. Much like a “Staycation” wheee people take a vacation by staying where they are, I have decided to take a “Stayretreat” where I will stay in my life here in Charleston. I will continue with my work but will
1. Carve out time each morning and evening for prayer and contemplation
2. Eliminate all non essential activities other than my work
3. Continue with prayer and worship activities
4. Try to do some regular writing in my journal.
5. Try to refrain from trying to solve anyone’s problems or giving advice,
6. Try to hear the direction God would have my life take.
Please pray for me. I am going to try to do this for a day and see if I can continue it through the month with God’s help.
So there we were. In a place…a “plantation”where not only had racist ideology fourished…but the pain and brutality and cruelty and subjugation and hatred had literally been harnessed to create the beauty that surrounded us as we watched a film about racism. It seemed, (and it still seems to be) an odd place to talk about racism. But that is why we were there…to come face to face with the subject of “racial reconciliation”. But we didn’t talk much. We just listened. I counted two or three brown faces floating in a sea of white and wondered aloud to one of the leaders “isn’t this an odd place to be having this discussion?” And “do many black people come here? I cannot imagine any of my black family members wanting to be in a place that would remind them how hatefully their relatives had been treated”. That honest query caused the person I was speaking to simply scurry away from me as if I had just exposed him to an infectious deadly disease. But I had. It is called racism. After his daughter (my wife) and I came back from a first trip to New Orleans…I once asked my proud black father in law why he would never go to that place. “It’s different now” I said. “It’s changed.” And he quietly told me that when he had been there while in the navy during the war the city was totally segregated and he had been treated so badly he could never return…change or no change. Recently I had the great good fortune to visit the new African American museum in DC. It is magnificent. But maybe we should have had our meeting in that place instead. It is virtually impossible to go through the first two floors of that place and come away without the clear understanding that our country was formed of the subjugation and criminal enslavement of people of color. Racism is not an outgrowth of our experience but a founding father. I am afraid until we own up to this fact and the pain and shame and degradation it still creates in 2019 that racial reconciliation is almost impossible.
With Lent approaching there is a lot going on I’m my life right now and I have come to understand my need for a period of calm, quiet and stillness to be able to hear the voice of a God and the direction he wants my life to take. So I am not posting on Facebook but only to this blog…which I will try to update on at least a weekly basis. If you would like to contact me…please do it through my email address: email@example.com and I will try to get back to you with direct contact information as quickly as I can.
It has been 12 years since Ernestine Mitchell Bugbee died and I have worked very hard to process the enormous grief of losing her and making a new life that is inspirational and meaningful to me. I have moved to a place I love…scaled down my life to what is more reasonable and affordable and, most remarkably I have discovered love in my life again. By all measures I am happy and very involved in meaningful work. Yesterday I picked up a rideshare customer and driving her to her destination, she told me that her husband had died 16 years ago and we agreed that for people like us…the annual holidays were difficult. And that is the truth about losing the people we love. Grief does not end. It is always there…just under the surface and can reappear at any time…often inconvenient ones. Grief is something we must learn to live with and I think most of us do. I remember when it was only a few weeks since E had died and I was gripped by a fear that I would lose the intense memory of her in my life. I know now after so long that this simply could not happen. The part of me that was created from the years of the love we shared is still there….if anything more real and intense than it has ever been. And there are good reasons why it becomes more active during the holidays. As I unwrap the beautiful small trees she decorated with flowers and ribbons and tiny artificial birds…and place them around my small apartment each November…that very act of unwrapping brings me back 20 years to the days I watched her make them with the loving care and bright energy that characterized everything she ever did. And when (as I did today) I collect them, find the two boxes they are stored in and carefully wrap each of them in the old wrinkled tissue paper she wrapped them in after that last Christmas we shared together in Providence…she is with me again and it still makes me both happy and terribly sad for her loss. And I miss her again. And the grief returns. One of the many things E did to celebrate the season was to make Pomander balls (fresh oranges heavily studded with cloves so that when the orange dries over time, the cloves scent the air with a beautifully sweet spicy blend). She would sit there for hours studding the oranges with the cloves so that no sight of the orange peel could be seen. Then she would tie a little plaid ribbon into a bow around them and gather them all into a large glass bowl which sat in the living room of our home. Today I decided to put them away both to protect them and to allow the memory of their creation to rest a while before I brought them back out next November. So I wrapped them very carefully and packed them away with the trees. It has brought me some sadness as I still miss her as if she has just left me. A few weeks before she died I had a panic attack and broke into tears. Ernestine put her arms around me and asked me what was wrong:
“What am I going to do when you are gone? You are the one person in this world that I have always turned to for love and advice and concern and direction. What am I going to do when you are not here for me to ask you what to do?” I said as we hugged.
“Robin”, she said, “We have been together for so long and you have asked me about every question you could possibly have…so don’t worry about that. I will always be with you in your heart. All you have to do when I am no longer in front of you is to go ahead and ask me the question and you will hear me answer you as I always have.”
And I have found this to be true. I frequently ask the questions, and I hear her voice giving me the answers I need to hear. And right now, she is telling me to put this away…to stop thinking about all of this because it is making me sad and to get on to living the wonderful life I have now and doing the work that brings me so much inspiration and joy.
And that, my friends is exactly what I am about to do.
Over the past two years of the Trump presidency I have frequently been asked “why doesn’t the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington DC not bar the doors to the President on the simple grounds that he, with his abusive and anti Christian behavior (that flies directly in the face of what we believe) should simply not be welcome. That we as Christians who believe in loving and forgiving all should not give aid and comfort to a man whose whole instinct appears to be to divide, to bully and to discriminate. It is a difficult question to answer but the question has a very simple response: we are called to love each other and to aid and protect the outcasts and most vulnerable among us. We are not called to turn anyone away…no matter how heinous their behavior and no matter how offensive their life. Our Presiding Bishop and a Primate of the Episcopal Chirch, Michael Curry has been very direct and up front about this. In his latest book the Bishop writes:
“Love is the way. Love is the only way. Those who follow in my way follow in the way of unconditional, unselfish, sacrificial love. And that kind of love can change the world.”
–Bishop Michael Curry
And this is the reason we make the central facet of our worship…the eating of the bread and the sharing of the wine freely available to all who hunger or thirst. There are no credentials to be checked and certified as you walk through the door: only the reality that you were created out of love (God’s love for his creation) and our love for God and for each other. The simple truth of the commandment to “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” is that it does not command us to like and respect each other’s opinions…it calls us to do something much more difficult…to love each other despite those opinions however objectionable they might be. So we open our doors widely to the world. Trusting in that act of inclusion that the love we show…even to those who may be “hard to love” has the power to change the world into a more “Christ-like place”. And in that holy act of welcome and inclusion we embrace the true heart of our faith: that Christ understands that we are all prone to mistakes and sins and stumbles on our way. That none are “perfect”. That we need to open our arms and our hearts to all: people who agree with us and those who do not. And in doing so…we bring God’s presence into our daily life in a real and fundamental way. And that can and frequently does change the world. The Reverend Mark Bozutti-Jones in a magnificent Christmas sermon this week at Trinity Church Wall Street challenged us all not to just “think” about our commitment towards love and inclusivity but to get up and “MOVE!” To physically commit an act of Grace: to let a stranger know you love then, to help the hopeless and down trodden in fundamental physical ways… to actually MOVE towards truly being the people of Love that our faith tells us we are. And we cannot do that and at the same time reject anyone whose personal behavior and heinous political beliefs are at odds with ours. And that the physical effort to accept, forgive, invite, love and welcome all can indeed change our world.
On this Christmas Eve I am reminded how important scents are to our lives. This morning, as I have done for many years, I unscrewed the top of a very small bottle of something called “The Smell of Christmas”made by a company named “Aromatique Inc”. And there it was: instant Christmas. I don’t say this lightly or flippantly. At least 13 years ago (a year before my late wife Ernestine died of terminal cancer) she had purchased a bottle of this essential oil that we used to scent the Pomander Balls that she made by studding oranges with cloves. That wonderful smell permeated the house we lived in on Blackstone Blvd. in Providence RI and it instantly tied all of the decorations and festivities together to create a wonderfully warm holiday environment that I am afraid I somewhat took it for granted. You know…Christmas comes back every year. Year after year. And as much as we love the traditions…it can get a little like that old Bill Murray moved “Groundhog Day”. It can get trite and old and I think it is our responsibility to prevent that. But that is easier said than done, Some years I am just not ready for it all…particularly since E and so many other family members and close friends have died. I actually have two unique scents that can send me back in time to happiness and joy: the Christmas scent that I use every year (or when I really want to remember the joy E and I shared together) and a squat little bottle labeled “Oriental Blend Pot-Pourri Oil” from a long ago vanished shop in Jermyn Street in London called James Bodenham & Company. That bottle has to be at least 25 years old. The label is hard to read and the bottle is just about empty…that is except for that wonderful scent that flows out of it when I bring it to my nose. One sniff brings back memories of wonderful trips to London and the day we wandered into the shop, bought the little bottle of scent and four wooden fruits that we used the oil on to scent our homes in the west Village in NYC, Seward, New York, Hackettstown, New Jersey and finally on Blackstone Blvd. in Providence. All of those houses have vanished as did my sweet Ernestine. The furniture that filled them has been disbursed and I live alone (of course with my beagles “Plaid” and “Stripe”) now in a very small and simple apartment near Charleston SC. I have an active, happy and busy life but at this time of year (and if I am going to be really honest at many other times) I remember and cherish the joys, pains, laughter and tears and the love I have given and had returned for my 70 plus years. And all of that come flooding back to me with a simple sniff of one of these little jars and I am overcome by the blessings I have received. (And yes, her pomander balls are still here and I can see her now as she was on that day that she made them). Merry Christmas…take a deep breath!