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: firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to get back to you with direct contact information as quickly as I can.