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…

Trust and Pandemic in the Midst of Lent

There are firsts in our lifetimes that we would rather not experience; and, the Coronavirus pandemic is one such first. Within my 34 years as an Episcopal priest, 30 of which I have been the leader of the congregation, I have only twice had to cancel church services and that was because of extreme weather; once an ice storm, and once a hurricane. Yet, never before have I cancelled Sunday worship to practice social distancing and help prevent the outbreak of a virus and pandemic. These are really very hard leadership decisions in which those whom you serve must trust you. And, what is ever so clear in this present and tragic time is that trust is at the core of how we must together move forward.

Henri Nouwen once wrote: “Trust is the basis of life. Without trust, no human being can live.” And, I would add that no relationship or marriage, no institution, nor nation can survive and live as well. This month, March 2020, we have unwillingly entered the uncharted waters of a pandemic in which trust has become central to our getting through this time. And it behooves those in positions of leadership, and those that are the medical professionals to be worthy of such a trust.

The Psalmist writes : “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” (Psalm 56:3). Our nation and the world are now living in quite fearful times. We see empty shelves in our grocery stores; that fear perhaps best epitomized in the insanity of the hoarding of toilet paper for no apparent reason. Fear is always a normal part of our lives, and a pandemic such as this exacerbates and brings it to the forefront. However, as people of faith we know that with God alongside us, we can turn to Him in these darkest of moments and know that He will see us through.

Although we may have great difficulty trusting some that are in positions of leadership, there are many in whom we can trust. And above all in this time, as I have throughout my life and ministry, we can trust in God—the Holy presence of God living, moving, and holding us up in the darkest of times.

Let us pray for all in the world who have lost their lives to COVID 19, to those presently suffering and yet to come. Let us give thanks for the doctors, nurses, and health care professionals fighting the good fight. And, in this holy season of Lent when we remember the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, pray for those in leadership and trust that God will see us through this time…

Managing Aging, Facing Mortality, and Making a Difference

There comes that day in our lives when we realize that we are not actually going to live forever. This realization, although so very obvious, takes a long time to surface. Most of us go from childhood and adolescence through our 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and even 50’s believing that this thing we call our life has no end. And then comes that moment, it’s arrival different for each of us, when we finally face our mortality.

My moment came halfway through the 59th year of life. I am now closing in on 61, facing a hip replacement at some point. There was no warning, no fanfare, it just suddenly showed up as an uninvited guest. Symptoms for me included reminiscing more than usual about the past, looking at old photo albums, and suddenly creating a 70’s and 80’s playlist on my I phone. When I lived in Manhattan in the early 80’s, I felt that the soundtrack for my life was the “Love Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire,” as I saw all before me that I wanted to love, create, and accomplish. And now, all these years later that song along with others like: “Don’t’ Stop Believin,” “Take it to the Limit,” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop us Now,” play through my air buds.

I am suspecting that this may well resonate with you on your life’s journey. I was called by God and made the decision at age 20 to give my life to Jesus and his Church. You might think that this would have made it easier for me to understand my purpose in life and my mortality. However, just like you it has been a real struggle. You see, it’s just not that easy for any one of us in the life to which we have been called and made, to understand all of its complexities. As a priest and counselor, many have come to me trying to understand the challenges, events, and desires of their faith and life. And in so many of those times, I learned as much if not more from them, than I was ever able to offer. I believe that the importance of that time though, was that I listened and together we searched for understanding.

In a conversation with a friend and priest, she reminded me of an ancient Greek quote that has been phrased in many different ways, whilst maintaining its essence: “A society grows great when old men and women plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” I think that if we are fortunate enough to reach this place in life, that is indeed our purpose. When we are young, we expect to sit one day in the cool shade of those trees and accomplishments that we are planting. And, the blessing of our second half of life and latter years is to both understand and accept that what we are now doing is not at all for us, but for others and their future.

I did not expect at this point in my life to still be working for the Church; I was sure that the first time that I retired after 30 years, it would be for good. Yet, here I am serving both a parish and a diocese. What is so very different now though, both in this ministry as priest, and in my life as husband, father, and grandfather is that the trees that I am striving to now plant I will most likely not ever see fully grown.

Are you planting those trees as well? Yes, one day we all shall die. Yet, when blessed by God with many years can we continue to make a difference? Where may God now be calling you and me? Together, can we say that we will continue to plant trees under whose shade we know that we shall never sit…

Be Kind in 2020 and Part of the “Glorious Impossible”

One of my favorite Episcopal authors, Madeleine L’Engle in her book, The Glorious Impossible, wrote: “Possible things are easy to believe.  The Glorious Impossibles are those things that bring joy to our hearts, hope to our lives, songs to our lips.”  Each year during the 12 Days of Christmas, we face once again “The Glorious Impossible” in our recounting and celebrating the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, and his impact on our lives.

 

The Prologue of the Gospel of John proclaims: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…”  There is a quite significant debate being waged in present day America on what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  Many, I included, argue that the Jesus of many of our churches and leaders has been so whitewashed as to bear very little resemblance to the Christ of the Gospels.  Jesus often powerfully spoke out on this very subject, such as in Matthew 23: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and the Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

 

Certainly, at one level or another, most of us have participated in the whitewashing of Jesus to suit our own thoughts, beliefs, and practices.  And yet to be children of God and followers of Jesus, we ourselves are summoned to be not ordinary and possible, but to be the glorious impossible in our faith, words, and actions.

 

The witness and ideas of German theologian and Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, still calls for our attention some 75 years since he was put to death for his resistance to Hitler and the Nazi Party.  Listen to what he wrote from prison, “To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself  on the basis of some method or other, but to be a person—not a type of person, but the person that Christ creates in us.  It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”  Bonhoeffer said aloud what we believe in our hearts and minds to be true, but often struggle with both the idea and practice of being that person that Christ has created in us.

That there is suffering and sin in life, is not something that anyone would argue to the contrary; this is why God came into the world in the form of a baby born to poor parents in a stable.  The very birth of Jesus announced that to follow Him, to be a Christian, would mean that you and I become a bearer of Him to others—to our family, friends, community, nation, and especially to the poor, the marginalized, and the persecuted.  This is what it means to accept Jesus and be a child of God.

 

Anglican Bishop of Durham and theologian, N.T. Wright has written, “The key word of course is ‘love,’ and much has been written about that in itself.  But I want to draw attention to something else—something often ignored in the clamor for better and clearer rules of Christian behavior: that we should be positively kind to one another…tender hearted…as God in Christ.” Could it be in this Christmastide that God is calling all of us, our nation’s leaders, institutions, news and social media folk, and churches to be children of God through our kindness?  What do you think?  How can you practice kindness as we move into 2020?  Fred Rogers once said: “Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.”

 

I end where I began this writing: in the “Glorious Impossible,” where not only joy and hope is found, but kindness is practiced.  Can we commit to being children of God in this New Year by practicing kindness?  “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…”

 

 

 

 

 

Be a Light for Someone in Darkness…

What I know about the Advent/Christmas season from 34 years of parish ministry and pastoral care is that many people are hurting this time of year. This is a particular kind of hurting that is related to loss in one’s life, and especially that of loved ones that are no longer physically present. The sights, smells and sounds of Christmas, coupled with the expectation of being merry and joyful can be a real emotional challenge to someone experiencing loss. All of us have been that person who has experienced loss at one point or another in our lives that was particularly magnified at Christmastime. And, for some individuals their loss is so great that every year at Christmas their pain reemerges.

This past week, I attended the “Blue Christmas” Eucharist at Grace Church Cathedral here in Charleston. This is a service that many churches offer this time of year for those experiencing the pain of loss during this season. I was first exposed to the power of such a service when I was the rector of St. John’s in Versailles, Kentucky. I attended this service at Grace not so much for myself, but to consciously be present in support of the many attending. The power of this service is that all come together in community around the Lord’s Table with the shared bond of grief and faith. There is always a time in this service where candles are lit in remembrance—a time that light breaks into the darkness.

Holy Scripture is filled with references of light that represent both God the Father and God the Son. And, within this Advent/Christmas season we are especially flooded with such images. On Christmas Eve we shall hear again the powerful words of the Prologue of John’s Gospel: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” I believe that whether or not we are one experiencing loss at this time, the power of the light of God in His Son Jesus overcoming darkness offers us new hope. And, if you are not one experiencing the pain that another feels, perhaps God is urging you to be a light for them as well. Can you help light another’s darkness?

The power of light and darkness, and our responsibility to be a light for Christ, came to me in a new way during our time in Germany last week for the “Weihnachtsmarkt,” the Christmas Market. Each day in Germany the sun rose at 8:15am and set by 4:15pm—just eight hours of daylight in the midst of very cold temperatures. What struck me though, was how as the darkness converged upon the city of Rothenburg, the lights of the season took hold upon all both magically and in holiness. I reflected upon how those lights overcame the early and sudden darkness in a way that brought all together in a spirit of love, peace, and joy. And, I imagined anew how we as individuals could be that same kind of light for others when they are overcome with sadness, grief, and darkness. This is something that I have tried to be for others in my ministry, need still to be both more intentional and better at, and invite you to strive with me in this challenge.

May the Light of Christ this season shine brightly for you, and through you be a light to those in darkness…