The Thin Place between Suffering and Joy

If you have lived, then you too have suffered. None of us in this life escape suffering; the mystery that continues is why some seem to suffer much more than others. That particular phenomenon is often coupled with the struggle to understand why bad things often seem to happen to very good people. Rabbi Harold Kushner devoted an entire book: “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” to that very question. He writes, “Laws of nature do not make exceptions for nice people. A bullet has no conscience; neither does a malignant tumor or an automobile gone out of control. That is why good people get sick and get hurt as much as anyone.”

Although, intellectually and theologically I agree with Kushner, truth be told in my three and a half decades of pastoral care it has seemed that a disproportionate number of these souls were incredibly good people.

When I was the priest and pastor of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Versailles, KY, there were 3 parishioners: Jane, Sarah and Jane, who were among the most loving and deeply good people that I have ever known. And, within the same period of 12 months, I ministered to each of them as they lost their battles to cancer and complications from surgery and passed into eternity at way too young an age. That year really shook my life and ministry. Have you ever had such a time?

I have come to understand that in our own suffering, or in that of someone whom we have cared for and loved, the greater challenge lies in what we do with that suffering. We may often feel that God is silent as we pray for healing and an end to the suffering. Though Kushner writes, “But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of they have lost, very often find their prayer answered.” I believe that it is here that we pass through that thin place to find unexpected joy.

You see, strange as it may sound, you and I can choose joy following suffering. We can choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise. What is God’s promise to you? It is that God is already at work taking your suffering and painful experience and turning it into a greater good. And, knowing that this activity of God is bubbling up in our lives gives us the promise and hope to continue on. “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…” (Ephesians 3:20)

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We Are Family!

I am presently in that bittersweet time as my tenure at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in just two short weeks will be coming to an end, and the future to which God calls in this season of life is yet unclear. And there is that little thing of scheduled right hip-replacement surgery, most likely needed as a result of years of pounding the pavement as a runner—especially during my 13 years in Atlanta.

Goodbyes and transitions for me, as for most of us are never easy.  However, when done well it is a real gift to the one leaving, as well as the place of departure.  It is made even more emotionally difficult when the people and place we are leaving are like family.

Peachtree Road Race 10k 1998

Remember the Gospel story where Jesus and the disciples are surrounded by folks trying to hear, get close, and even touch him? So much so, that they are not even able to eat. Some of Jesus’ detractors were saying that he had gone out of his mind, so his family, perhaps a bit embarrassed, go to get him out of there. And, in this moment Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are outside asking for him. Profoundly, Christ replies: “‘Who are my mother and my brothers.’ And, looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Mark 3)

Jake Owensby, Episcopal Bishop of Western Louisiana, has just written: “Christians were redefining family long before there was such a thing as marriage equality and Pride Month. Well, strictly speaking, Jesus himself revealed the essence of family. What he said was strikingly simple. Love creates family.” (“Redefining Family” JAKEOWENSBY.COM)

The love that Jesus emphasized was perhaps best expressed in doing the will of God in the way that God intends. This is the discernment, the work of each individual that when joined with others may become a community of faith, or a household and family. Additionally, this is a love that is expressed in the compassionate and non-judgmental love of Jesus given one to another—that, creates family. Remarkably, when you and I are living in this way there is not much room to focus upon and worry about who is loving who, and what constitutes someone else’s family.

Anglican author and theologian, C.S. Lewis, wrote: “We may ignore, but we can never evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with him. He walks everywhere in cognito…The real labor is to remember to attend. In fact, to come awake.” (Letters to Malcolm) When you and I are awake to the God who is all around us, it becomes easier to recognize the kind of family that Jesus promulgates. We can look at a mother, father and their children and see God. We can look at a father and father with their child and see God. And, several years ago at Saint John’s, when I baptized a beautiful baby girl with her mother and mother standing at the baptismal font, I indeed saw God. Family, as Jesus proclaimed is defined by a grounding in doing the will of God and loving like Jesus—this, a compassionate and non-judgmental love. And I have certainly experienced that kind of love at Saint Mark’s.

Within my lifetime, I have come to know that old familiar saying: “Home is where the heart is,” to certainly be true. And Jesus’ profound statement of family as not being limited to biological or residential confines, but rather to those that together do that which God intends, the will of God, is a Gospel challenge for us all, yet one that I have personally experienced. Maybe you have as well. You see, it is indeed: Love that creates family…

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When God Whistles to You…

I still remember as a little boy stopping in my tracks to hear the train whistle sounding. The air had to be clear and the wind blowing in the right direction for the sound to travel to our yard from about a mile away. Yet, when the right combination came together, boy could you hear that whistle.

This evening, sitting and praying on our screened in porch on Daniel Island, SC, I heard that whistle once more. All conditions again had to be perfect for that train whistle to be carried across the Cooper River to our island home. And in the beautiful moon-lit night, I thought about the house on Long Island, NY in which I grew up, and how that whistle then and now seems to beckon us. The distant train passed and I wondered whether God was again whistling to get my attention.

It would seem that there are different times when we hear the whistle of God announcing God’s presence and that God may be about a new thing in our lives. We may remember back to some significant spiritual experience or event, and recall how God got our attention in a new and decisive way. Could God have really been whistling? Webster’s dictionary defines whistling as: “to produce a clear sharp sound; to summon, or signal.”

I have come to believe that God’s whistle comes to each of us in different times and places, summoning us to serve our Lord and calling us to new life and purpose. Like the train whistle that I heard this evening from this to a distant shore, God as well whistles to you in moments and places that may stop you in your tracks. Perhaps as well, it may move you to a response and new life. Can you hear the whistle of God?

Realities and Challenges for the 21st Century Priest

At its very best, the life of a priest has moments that break out of chronological time and touch the face of God. And at its most difficult, the life of a priest can be very frustrating and lonely.

I have been an Episcopal priest for 36 years, a number that I find quite hard to fathom. I was the second youngest seminarian in my General Theological Seminary class of 1985. During these 36 years of ordained ministry, I have served six churches and five dioceses. For the most part these have been wonderful years of ministry, blessing, and encountering countless beautiful souls. Many were folks of a deep faith with a call to serve, some were in special need, and all were on a Christian spiritual journey in search of God and life’s meaning. And, I must say that I have loved being a priest, considered it an undeserved privilege, would do it all again, and still give thanks daily for this call from God.

I am as well sure that this reflection is bubbling out of my upcoming second retirement from parish ministry; a beautiful community of faith steeped in an amazing history as an African American parish founded in the City of Charleston in 1865. Yet, I am hopeful that God still has plans for me, and that a new and different call shall emerge.

My three years at General Seminary in the heart of New York City were rich in both academics and Anglican spiritual formation. It was also a beautiful place to begin my married life, and for us to welcome our first child, a daughter. Yet, looking back there were a number of things, realities if you will, for which seminary does not prepare one. There should have been a course in general building maintenance, especially heating and air conditioning systems. There should as well be instruction on how to deal with a parishioner with a border line personality disorder who comes into a position of leadership. Perhaps, above all else seminary should prepare one for a life in which you are seen as “different,” and that although parishioners are social and friendly with you, they are in most instances not really your friends, you are their priest and they are your parishioners. Many clergy discover this reality the first time they leave their church for a new call. And so as a priest, one discovers the challenge of having meaningful, long-term friendships.

Studies continue to show that upwards of 3/4 of those in ordained ministry claim some level of loneliness and depression. The pandemic, like for so many walks of life, has only exacerbated this phenomenon. Yet, through the power of prayer and the One who promises to always be with us, clergy persevere. Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, in his classic and timeless book, “The Christian Priest Today,” wrote: “He is with us not only to inspire us, but to enable us to be sharing in his own ministry. Our caring for the people is our sharing in the present work of Jesus the Shepherd. Our prayer is a sharing in the continuing intercession of Jesus. Our proclamation of the truth of God is our showing to the people Jesus, who is himself truth. So the God who calls and is the author of our vocation is the God whose theology we study and teach, and the God who never ceases to be with us as we make him known.”

The 36th anniversary of my ordination comes in this month of May, and as I said, I would do it all again. I am also keenly aware that the younger clergy of the 21st century have it much harder than when I started out. The majority of my years in ministry were in the southeast, a place where for most of my years people belonged and went to church on Sundays. This is no longer true; our country has pretty much caught up with the experience of England and western Europe decades ago. A recent poll showed that only 51 percent of Americans claim membership in a particular church.

Certainly, the present milleau in which the ministry of the Church takes place, will continue to be a serious issue for the clergy. It is easy to see how this can amplify the challenges that have always existed for the parish priest; depression, loneliness, and burnout are perhaps now an even stronger possibility. And so, those of us who have been at this for a while must find ways to support our brother and sister clergy. We must stay connected and be there for one another. The laity too, should be encouraging and establish formal ways of support for their ministers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in speaking about Christian community wrote: “The Christian, however, must bear the burden of a brother (or sister).”

After these many years, I am still in awe of the call from God. I am still in love with God as well. And, I look upon those now continuing to be faithful to God’s call to serve with deep admiration and thankfulness. “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.”(Ephesians 3:20-21)

We are Spiritual Beings having a Human Experience…

This afternoon, I had time to walk amongst the beauty of Daniel Island and in the quiet, gentle breeze reflect. I have spent most of my adult life and ministry in both learning and teaching that we are all spiritual beings having a human experience. This last year of the pandemic has been an unusual time of not feeling connected to one another in ways that I once took for granted. Yet, more than this it has been a season of rediscovery of my lifelong passion to be close to the One who called me into being–“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” (Isaiah 44:2)

The Waterfront on Daniel Island

All of us have experiences within our lifetimes, wherein the framework within which our lives were operating and moving along smoothly from day-to-day suddenly changes.  Sometimes the change is planned, but more often than not it is thrust upon us. And it is the latter that can really shake us to the core.  This may be the sudden end of a relationship, a life-changing illness, the loss of work and position, the loss of our home, the death of someone we loved dearly, or even a world-wide pandemic. As painful and difficult as these changes may be to our physical and emotional being, they in time are as well unique opportunities to make better sense of our stories…to journey if you will, closer to God.

Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk and one of the foremost spiritual thinkers of the 20th century, wrote: ” To keep ourselves spiritually alive we must constantly renew our faith.”  When the framework within which you have been living is suddenly changed or torn apart, this can as well be a moment (when you are ready) for a renewal of your faith.  Without this framework, we perhaps have time to pause, to gather our thoughts, get our bearings, heal, and look ahead.  And, these times may become blessed opportunities to journey forward and become closer to God; a God that never leaves our side.

Theologian and Oxford professor, Alister McGrath writes, “The image of a journey reminds us that we are going somewhere. We are on our way to the New Jerusalem. It encourages us to think ahead and look forward with anticipation to the joy of arrival. One day we shall finally be with God, and see our Lord face-to-face.” Yet, now you and I are called to be present to this moment in time, reflecting upon how today we may become closer to God and serve others in His Name…

Listening to the Silence of God

In 1964, when I was 4, Simon and Garfunkle released “The Sound of Silence.” The second verse sings: “In restless dreams I walked alone

Narrow streets of cobblestone

‘Neath’ the halo of a street lamp I turned my collar to the cold and damp

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light That split the night

And touched the sound of silence…”

I have always loved this song along with the musical genius of Simon and Garfunkle. In high school, the stage band that I was a trumpeter for perfomed this moving song. These words have now for several decades, poignantly spoken to the silence I more often than not have encountered in my prayer life. Perhaps, this has as well been your experience.

You might think that as a priest, I would hear more clearly and more often the voice of God. Yet, like you, I often wait upon the Lord within the deafening sound of silence. And, I am quite skeptical of the believer who claims to always hear God’s voice and know God’s will. I just do not see a plethora of examples of such within the pages of holy scripture.

These 40 days of Lent, I have focused upon the mystery of hearing, encountering, and understanding the voice and will of God. And, although this has been a most meaningful time, I am not sure that things have gotten any clearer. What is clearly true though, for you and me, is that God is in our midst always, even when we cannot percieve or hear Him. And, that is enough for me to continue on…

As Hope Emerges, What Have We Learned In This Time?

Certainly, it seems like we are seeing light at the end of these arduous twelve months of a tragic pandemic in our nation and the world. As more and more are vaccinated and herd immunity becomes a possibility, we can now envision getting back to a life that, although will be different, is more reflective of the way we all once lived. Poet Emily Dickinson wrote: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”

Obviously, I cannnot speak to the uniqueness of what you may have learned in this time. I can however, share what I have learned and you can reflect upon how that may speak to your own experience.

It was not long into the pandemic, before I realized how important human touch, embrace, and smiling at another are so connected to my energy field and well being. And, I am one who has been so very blessed to have a spouse, children, and grandchildren in if you will, my bubble. Yet, the loss of weekly and Sunday in-person contacts with people in the community and with the members of the church that I serve, has left a deep hole.

A quite poignant learning for me, was that without others all around me with whom I am busily engaged, I rely much more heavily upon my relationship with God. And the specific insight or teaching that I have been given, is that as things return to some normalcy, I must not slip back into my former complacency; others, as wonderful as they may be, cannot replace my need for and reliance upon God. These last 12 months, I have felt our Lord’s presence and heard God’s words in ways that I have not for quite some time.

I have also experienced that when my life is simplified, not only do I hear God‘s voice much more frequently and clearer, I as well am empowered to tap into the gifts of creativity. I have now painted for hundreds of hours, something I was never formally able to do. That spark, that gift re-emerged and became a form of prayer in and of itself. And, I was reminded how our God can take the worst of situations and turn it, use it, for a greater good.

Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Ephesus, “ Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…” I pray and hope that you as well have experienced God’s goodness in this past difficult year. Do not lose hope, and always remember that you are beloved in the eyes of God.

Finally, I both learned and experienced the remarkable ability of humankind to both adapt and discover new ways to move forward and face the challenges at hand. Through a pre-pandemic committee that I was asked to lead, I witnessed how over the course of this last year, all learned a new “Zoom” way of functioning. Committee members beautifully adapted and learned the new ways that we needed to function to carry out our charge. God’s grace was and always is, incredible…

And in the end, it is about Serving and Loving in the Name of Jesus…

We spend the early years of infancy and childhood learning and adapting to the family within which we have been born, the people in our lives, and basically figure out how to please and grow within these systems. In our maturing years we strike out to differentiate ourselves and claim our independence of “being” within these systems and the others within which we find ourselves thrust. And in our early adult years stretching well into our middle-age, we seek to establish ourselves, be “successful,” make our mark in our chosen life’s work, family, and leave a legacy. Then, we come into what I have discovered is a wonderful time of grace, and if we are both intentional and fortunate, love.
I am not sure how it possibly can be 2021, that I have been married for 38 years, have three children and five grandchildren, and have been a priest for 35 years. Yet, all of this is true. What I have come though to deeply appreciate is that in these present years I no longer seek to be successful or make a name for myself, but rather ask the questions and seek to live the questions of how may I serve, and how may I love those entrusted to my care and those whom I encounter.

All of the earlier machinations of our life’s journey are both important and necessary. We are born to such a noble cause and calling. And yet, when all is said and done, when we have both accomplished and been disappointed along the way, we all, if we are aware and willing to acknowledge, arrive in the same place. That is to say, that in the final analysis what matters most is how we have served and how we have loved in this seemingly short span of years that we have been granted.

In my early years of priesthood and training as a pastoral counselor in Atlanta, the therapist who I saw for supervision every other week, had a framed needlepoint of the poet, Robert Frost, hanging in his office. Every time I sat in his office those words loomed large and rang true: “We dance round in a ring and suppose, But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”

And at this point in my life, I finally know the secret; it is to serve…it is to love…for me, like Jesus. The pull of God from the first steps that we take as a baby…the pull of the universe…the Circle of Life is to serve and Love. What better legacy can you leave…? I seek now to serve and make a difference for the kingdom of God in this time and place…

The Dream may seem Impossible, yet there is God…

Seventeen years ago this month, I was in New York City at the General Theological Seminary for a focused retreat. It was February and there was lots of snow. I was 43, and the Dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. I went up to the city and General Seminary to listen for God and discern God’s direction for my ministry and that of the cathedral’s. For me, going to my seminary in the heart of Chelsea, is an organic experience of the roots of my priesthood. After covid, it will be amongst my first journeys.

One of those evenings, I was fortunate to snag a single orchestra ticket for “Man of La Mancha,” playing at the Martin Beck Theater. Brian Stokes Mitchell starred as Don Quiote. Sitting just several rows from the stage, it was a deeply spiritual experience that culminated in the moment of “The Impossible Dream.”

“To dream the impossible dream…

This is my quest, to follow that star

No matter how hopeless,

No matter how far

To fight for the right

Without question or pause

To be willing to march into hell

For a heavenly cause…” And, as those words were sung, my eyes teared up as it poignantly defined my spiritual journey.

You see, not unlike the present day now at age 60, (how can that be?), I have always sought God’s will for my life and ministry. This has been a restless seeking and waiting. And, my ministry has not always been well received, indeed it has even been attacked, but it has always been to the best of my ability of God.

Where do you find yourself today? This time of pandemic has been enormously challenging as you search for both meaning and direction in your life. Yet, do not give up as God is always just an arm’s length away, nudging you forward to the call and place that God intends. The dream may not be realized, perhaps even impossible, however God’s presence, love and direction are always before you…

And even Now…Give Thanks

When I was a child growing up in New York, more than anything else, Thanksgiving was all about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This is the 94th year of the parade, and unlike any other it will be for television audiences only. There won’t be the 2.5-mile parade route; instead, the event will be held in front of the cameras at Macy’s Herald Square on 34th Street in New York City. And yet, I still give thanks that albeit in a different manner, the parade will still go on.

We have never lived through a year like this one. When I champagne toasted with loved ones on New Year’s Eve, this was not the year I thought that I was heralding in! Like me, I suspect that you cannot believe that this pandemic began two months later, and here in November it is worse than ever. So, how do we even contemplate sitting at the table of a Thanksgiving feast when more than 250,000 Americans have perished. How do we honor the significance of this holiday, knowing that many are in hospital suffering, families are missing loved ones lost to Covid, and so many Americans throughout our nation cannot put food on their tables?

Saint Paul writes in First Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Maybe, just maybe, we who have not been affected as adversely as others by this virus are the ones now called upon to give thanks to God for those who perhaps right now are overwhelmed and cannot. Maybe, those of us who have not become sick with Covid, and have not suffered the loss of a family member or our employment, can at our Thanksgiving tables hold those who have suffered in our hearts and prayers. And with me, imagine that if that prayer becomes through us a tangible and grace-filled response to those in need.

God is always good, and so we must be as well. A Blessed and safe Thanksgiving…