Traveling Mercies

I spend a lot of time in my car.

My intrepid Nissan Altima has seen many, many miles of the American countryside during its time in my care, the lion’s share of which it has suffered during my daily commute. I haven’t vacuumed the floorboards in a while so there’s a fine layer of road grit and leaf litter spangling the black upholstery abyss.

A few articles linger on my back seat–a CD wallet, a small cardboard box containing the “Insanity” workout DVDs (unused, naturally), stray mass bulletins that never found the recycling bin, and a binder from a conference I attended last summer.

The back seat of my car runs the risk of becoming that one forgotten room in the church building where the husks of summer vacation church school programs go to die. In some ways it’s like my car itself has become a church building–or at least it’s become the thing I wish a church building can be.

I’m at my most human and unguarded while driving, after all.

In the course of my commute I can run a traffic-induced gamut of emotions spanning all degrees from rage to elation depending on how the turn onto Old Bridge Road from 123 is going to go. Everyone knows about road mania in Northern Virginia–we live on the roads, we work on the roads, we rely on the roads to organize our family lives. Pedestrian-accessible? Nonsense. And not even with public transport is the stretch of highway between DC and Richmond really navigable for those poor souls without vehicular means.

So we spend hours on end in our cars, living a significant portion of our life behind the wheel–I clock at least ten to fifteen hours a week driving. It’s only natural that bits of my spirituality seep in through the cabin air filter.

I wish that I could be as ecstatically open with my feelings toward God as I am with my feelings toward the beloved child of God who–bless their heart–just cut me off in their Land Rover in the middle of a left turn. Glory! But perhaps that’s some of what the Psalmist felt when they wrote “blessed is the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”

But the truth is, even with an hour-long commute in one of the worst traffic areas in the country, I love to drive.

My adventures have taken me to cities and seas, to monasteries, mountains, and myriad wild, wonderful places; to truck stops and dive bars and dance clubs; to weird little antique shops in the middle of nowhere on a stretch of I-44 in Missouri that consisted of nothing but porn shops and Churches of Christ.

I’d stop on the side of the road to instagram sunsets and valleys and the accidental waterfalls that leach out where the water table hits the giant scar gouged into the earth to construct I-64 west of Lexington. Sometimes the beauty would pull a tear or several out of my eye.

II.

When I came out I put a lot of miles on my car.

Quite unsure of what I was to do and, in hindsight, oozing shame and terror, I took off in my gold 2002 Chevy Prizm with a peeling clear coat and peeled out of the driveway.

I spent many balmy autumn Kentucky evenings driving a circuit that took me out southwest of my college town, over the Kentucky River palisades, by a Shaker community-turned-museum, around to another much more liberal college town where my first job was–I’d stop and buy liquor just to bask in irony, because I worked for a tea-totaler baptist church–back up US 27 and into Wilmore.

In my car–not church–I felt for fleeting moments as though I could get away from the things that were holding me in thrall, and that if I widened my spiral around my town enough I’d eventually run into a monastery where I could dramatically crash my car into a tree, throw a robe on, and make it into the chapel just in time for mass.

If I spent the rest of my life running, I reasoned, I’d never actually have to become a whole person. And so I ran for a solid three months.

When I finally stopped running long enough to sit still and heed the perplexed voice of God wondering aloud what the hell I thought I was doing, I kept driving. I traded the Prizm for the Altima in the following spring, during Holy Week. And I kept driving, a fresh car with new memories, playing a Beyoncé CD on repeat.

Somewhere in all that time spent in my car, my car became a church. There’s an icon of Christ the Teacher in my console and a St Benedict medal hanging from my rear-view mirror. More than once there’s been a black leather bag with a phial of God’s blood and a hunk of God’s flesh in it on the seat next to me, ever so gingerly placed (and buckled in).

In addition to giving Jesus a ride, I gave a stranger a ride too; they’re the same thing, after all. I shared meals with friends at the Parkette. I blasted dance music in parking lots. I took the Eucharist to darling people. I forgot to take the Eucharist to someone (ask me about that later). I swore like a trucker and got mad. I had long, hard conversations. I wept and I guffawed. I drove to go see a moonbow at 3AM the night before I had to preach for the first time in years. And then I packed up all the crap I could fit and drove–not ran–home to start a new job in a new field as a new person.

III.

A car might be a means of grace. It’s not so patently ridiculous–if God becomes bread and wine to feed God’s people, if God is blowing everywhere and filling all things, then surely she can use metal and vinyl and upholstery and glass and gasoline to be a sacred space.

Whenever I had to make that long slog from my parents’ home in the DC suburbs to my college town–when I was still running, in other words–my dad would always pray for traveling mercies. In fact, dad still prays that whenever we take a trip together, or when I’m off for a trip by myself.

Maybe it wasn’t that he was praying I’d get there safely, though perhaps that was a part of it. Perhaps he prayed that I’d be able to hear the voice of God amid the road noise and Beyoncé beats.

IV.

When I mentioned packing all my crap into my car and driving home, what I failed to point out was that said trip was actually my second haul from Lexington to DC in a month’s time.

During the beginning of November last year, I wept in my Altima during a conversation when told by an administrator from my seminary that I was under disciplinary investigation by my conservagelical seminary. Someone had reported statements I had made on my blog regarding my identity and support of queer people. That same administrator–in the same breath, almost–told me that my calling and identity were sacred gifts that nobody could take from me.

Later that month I was in a Red Robin bar when I got a phone call from my dad, who was audibly shaken. My godfather had passed away. We knew Fletcher was going to pass for a while—he was in his late nineties and had lived the kind of teeming, abundant life Jesus talks about in John’s gospel—but even when one expects these things, one is never quite prepared for the lurch.

A hurried missive from the bar—I was trying to keep it together—went to my field placement mentor to ask for a bye for the following Sunday. With her blessing I went home and threw together my clericals, cassock and surplice, and some other odds and ends of clothing so I could leave first thing in the morning to make it to the funeral.

There wasn’t a lot of music on that trip; mostly road noise and a smattering of Beyoncé songs from the CD still in the dash. The next morning we sullenly dressed, piled into the car and set off on our way. Dad prayed for traveling mercies before we backed out of the driveway; between Dumfries and Fredericksburg I remember numbly saying my morning office to myself in the back seat of my dad’s hybrid, the ceiling too low for my enormous head, the plastic rectangle on my clericals digging into my throat and pulling whiskers that I hadn’t had time to trim.

I didn’t weep until the frigid Sunday afternoon when we buried Fletcher in Danville, while we were singing “In the Garden.” I remember hiding my face behind the half-sheets of paper with the lyrics on them while the guardsmen’s captain hassled the presiding pastor about the funeral taking too long.

We ate at Wendy’s later, mom, dad, and I; we didn’t say much.

Fletcher baptized me and set me on my journey, and I suspect that he’s surprised by the turns it’s taken since I was a rotund little thing in the baptismal waters. He was responsible for my dad’s meeting Christ, and in that mystical communion-of-saints way, my own. And more besides.

Fletcher was the kind of man who prayed for traveling mercies, and I suspect that he still does. And I pray to St. Fletcher sometimes, too, because he didn’t just pray for traveling mercies; he lived them.

I Have Called You Friends

A recent afternoon adventure took me to a Hindu temple for the first time, namely, the Siva-Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Maryland.

The one thing we never talked about in seminary was how to appreciate another’s religious tradition. Well, that’s not entirely accurate; we were taught to appreciate it in order to dismantle it and win people over to evangelical Christianity. And here I was, watching men and women and children worship in an effusive whirl of saris and songs and delicious food.

And I, doing my best to be reverent and not knock anything over, found myself joining in silently, using what prayers I knew: “Come, Heavenly Comforter and Spirit of Truth, blowing everywhere and filling all things…” And there was joy, and beauty, and a tasty meal afterwards.

Because Abraham’s kids all live on the same block, it’s easy enough to engage in those conversations that drag us into the realm of the spiritual; it’s easy to live on the borders of faith when we all claim religious descent from a tribe of kooky Levantine nomads. What about those traditions that are simply not-of-this-floodplain?

The impulse of conservative religion is to dismiss another religion’s traditions as “demonic idol worship,” or perhaps with the more genteel othering of “false teaching.” On the other hand, the impulse of liberal religion is to blur the outlines of each tradition’s understanding of the deity. “Jesus Christ was an avatar of Vishnu,” one well-meaning ecumenist may say; “Allah is another name of Yahweh,” says another.

Perhaps the same Christ who says “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” also dances on the back of ignorance, or brings mountains of medicine (his own flesh and blood?) to heal those to whom he is devoted. But Christ is not Shiva nor is he Hanuman, and I have no desire for him to be because Siva and Hanuman deserve their own share of the collective unconscious’ airtime.

On the contrary, however, that’s not to say that those traditions don’t give me new ways of imagining Christ, or of understanding his work in the world. In that sense I’m not a theological liberal, because at the end of the day Christ remains unique, but I’m not a theological conservative either, because I would hope that I have the openness of heart as a follower of Christ to be able to embrace other people for whom the Christ I know and follow is still a stranger–even with enough humility to learn from their traditions.

Perhaps there are many paths to the Christ who is reconciling the world to God in his body. But that is not for me to say, because at the end of the day the language I have been given for the divine is that of the Christian story in which Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” That’s what I speak in; that’s what I know, what fits like a beloved pair of jeans. But neither is my faith threatened by the faiths of others; in fact, the devotion of another can (and does!) fan the flame of my own devotion to Christ.

For me, Christ is a scrappy Jewish peasant with a penchant for wonderworking, who gave his followers his very life in a sacred meal and called them–called us!–his friends. The greatest goal, the uttermost thing, “the only thing worthwhile,” says St Gregory of Nyssa, “is becoming God’s friend.” And Jesus has called us friends. Not devotees or followers, not servants or disciples, but friends.

That being the case, I think it only fitting that those of us whom Christ called friends in turn go outside of the perimeter of the Christian tradition to find those other people whom God is calling into friendship with God, with enough openness to embrace God’s friends wherever they can be found. That, friends, is sharing good news: “you are a friend of God.”

As a Christian, I’ve got no issue attending a seder or sharing prasadam–whatever is offered as hospitality is offered to the Christ who “plays in ten thousand places,” and whose capricious weaving together of all creation means he might show up here and there in naught but calligraphy, or elsewhere with breasts, or perhaps a tail or blue skin, or even on a chalkboard somewhere as a mathematical formula. A shocking suggestion, perhaps–but is it so shocking that the trickster Holy Spirit would use whatever means are at her disposal to make friends with all people?

Maybe we should be shocked at the work of the Holy Spirit.

Winning Words

I still remember my old way of talking about the work of God.CRUCIFXN

It’s a way that many in the American South speak about God’s work–“Jesus suffered and died a gruesome death that you rightly deserve in your place so you don’t have to.” No, something says in our gut, that’s not quite right. Could God be so ugly?

Not a small number of people have refused to speak about God like this. The idea behind this language itself originates in the late middle ages with St Anselm of Canterbury, and the idea is completely foreign to God-talk of the pre-Reformation Church.

But even then, the ideas hang heavy and heady in the imagination of disenchanted people for whom this was the bread and butter of a religious imagination that strove to remind them how worthless they were in the sight of God–as if God were doing us some cosmic favor and saying, “you owe me one.” And so some words still throb with a certain pained beauty–at the communion this morning we sang “How Great Thou Art,” which has that problematic line,

and when I think that God, his son not sparing,
sent him to die; I scarce can take it in–
that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing
he bled and died, to take away my sin.

When my voice breaks with hidden tears as we’re singing, the faithful are queuing up at the altar rail to eat our glad-burden-bearing God.

Take, eat; this is my body broken

But this hymn doesn’t have to be read like that or sung like that, as if it were a celebration of a God gleefully beating his son into a pulp to get out of doing the same to us. No; here is poetry, here is a picture of the way God works in deep and radiant mystery. And I, singing it, do not have to reject the poetic cradle for this mystery.

Drink this, the cup of the new covenant in my blood

In the divine poetic, Jesus gladly bears the burdens of being human–perhaps even demanding that we cast our burdens on him lest we believe for a second that we are excellent enough to hide behind our effort. And he dies to take away sin by allowing himself to be plunged into the worst that humanity has to offer and dragging those things down to the grave whence they came.

We proclaim his death until he comes again

For Christians, anyway, the Cross is where we see God in God’s true incomprehensible form. It is no miracle that the God of life would rise from the dead; the real miracle is that God would die in the first place, identifying utterly and totally with God’s creatures in the process. The God who dies is a God who is for us, who feeds us out of the fruit of a divine sacrifice, whose broken body is reconstituted in the body of a broken and suffering Church that bears witness to a God who is for us up to and beyond death.

Therefore let us keep the feast, alleluia

I hate what this hymn does to me. Every time I sing it I’m reminded of the men whose favorite hymn it is, of their witness to the power of a new-thing-doing, life-out-of-death God, a burden-bearing God, a world-inverting God. And so I weep, not for sadness, or nostalgia, or even the joy of having the burdens of human brokenness taken off my shoulders. I’m not really sure why I’m crying. Perhaps it’s just the utter weight of beauty, a burden itself heavier than stars and lighter than air.

E’er She Calls

prayer-card-good-shepherd-prayer-for-vocationsI entered seminary five years ago under the impression that I had been called to ministry.

The call was real enough. I have been so told, and that calling has been tested and affirmed in community as well as my episodes in own journey. But I imagined when I “answered the call” that the process of so doing would somehow set me on a path whereupon all the divots and bumps of the human journey would be smoothed out, such that I could soar through my education, catch my diploma midair, and gently spiral into a cushy landing as an associate pastor under commission in the United Methodist Church.

Needless to say, such isn’t the case five years later.

Interestingly, what prompted my decision to enroll at ATS was my chance encounter with Romans 8.1, which came at the end of a long struggle against my perceived call to ministry. Near the end of my undergrad career I was faced with it, as I had considered for some time what it was precisely that God wanted me to do with my life. I heard the verse–“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”–and I wrote in my journal, “I can’t not tell people this.” I took this as a cue to enter into seminary towards a life as a professional proclaimer of non-condemnation, as I imagined the ministry to be.

It’s a real gas that such a verse would be the key in my vocation’s ignition, which had been silently simmering below a seven-year melange of high school finding-of-thyself, classical music training at evangelical college, and internalized homophobia. The priceless pearl of truth that I thought I had to share with the world–that there was now no condemnation–ended up, at the end of seminary, being the very thing that I needed to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.

But then, how would I be able to proclaim it if I didn’t live it? And having lived it, indeed, how can I not proclaim it?

I had the benefit of an excellent field placement mentor during seminary who often pushed me on this issue of calling–why do I feel called? Thanks to her prodding, I’ve turned this over in my mind for a long time. I certainly have my commission on ministry and bishop’s interview answers–that this is a calling I have been led to through prayer, participation in the sacraments, growth in community, &c.–but I also sense deep, abiding pull that I can’t quite put into words. It’s as if the vortex of God’s dance of self-giving love has sucked me into it in this particular channel for living out my death and resurrection. I feel like I can’t not do it.

Is that a complete answer? Probably not. There’s only as much as I know to this point; what will be revealed in the future remains clouded in God’s unboundedness.

But my sense-of-call isn’t because I think I wouldn’t be happy if I weren’t a pastor, or that being a priest will suddenly shuffle everything in my life into a manageable order, or that being a priest will finally get others to respect me, or even that being a priest will finally get God to love me. Those were all things I thought at one point or another during seminary. And a lot of people in discernment and formation think these things, if we’re being honest. Because God calls humans, baggage and all, to baptismal ministry, and from there on to ordained ministry. I can’t not do it because this is the path, one, that God has called me to whereupon I’ll work out my salvation, and two, because I’ve chosen to answer that call. We’re always free to say no to the call.

But I’ve chosen to say yes to it, to set out on the journey of testing and fanning it into flame in a community, knowing that I will hurt, and I will suffer, and I will celebrate, and I will hold others. Because Christ has hurt, suffered, celebrated with, and held me. But all along the way I will tell people that they are freed from condemnation, because God has freed me from condemnation in ways that I could only experience by walking out the journey of formation and discernment. It’s my hope that I will be a faithful witness to that unconquerable God-is-for-us love each time I share love and welcome and food with them.

In that, my vocation ceases to be about me at all–because it’s only ever truly been about the Caller and Her beloved people.

The Desired Family

A couple of days ago my friend Alan posted on hir blog a striking reflection on Luke 8.19-21. The gist of Alan’s argument was that Jesus did not come to protect so-called “traditional” family values, but rather through his ministry created a new sort of family relationship that was not tied to bloodlines and family structures but rather whether one was within the desire (thelema) of God–that Jesus’10447055_657248383161_7838373164928455718_n teaching deconstructs prevalent notions of family that existed in the Greco-Roman world and persist to today. God’s reign does not only bring shalom to heteronormative middle American nuclear families, but to those of us whose families look a little weirder than normal.

The myth of the nuclear family still pervades Western imagination. Even in the gay rights movement what we essentially see is a retrofitting of the nuclear family myth to include same sex parents as opposed to the expected opposite-sex pairing of mom and dad. The same sex parents adopt or have children through surrogacy in order to achieve the required 2.5 broodlings, and perpetuate the familial structure that has been ingrained in the American psyche since the days of I Love Lucy. That’s the kind of family the media feeds us, the kind of family that makes it into a prime time sitcom spot (even though I adore Modern Family).

Many of the arguments for inclusion from the Christian equality activists–bless them!–even seem to focus on including this kind of family, without really considering whether the image of family that their activism endorses is really appropriate for the ones on whose behalf they speak.

But what about those families that aren’t quite as normal looking? What about those families that don’t fit the expectations of popular imagination? What about those families I like to describe as “post-nuclear,” whether by accident or by choice? Childless couples? Single adults? Close more-than-friends, not-quite-couples? Monastic communities? Non-custodial parents? The mentally and physically disabled? Extended relations all gathered under one roof? Celibate LGBTQ couples?

We frequently use the term “family” in a sort of quasi-nostalgic way when we speak of our work “family,” or our college “family”–what we typically mean is our incredibly close friends, but we use an image-caked word to conjure exactly how close they are. We mean people with whom we share life in common. In the economy of thelema that Jesus’ preaching advocates, it seems as though the sex-soaked bonds of genos and patria are being dissolved in favor of a vision of family that rests in shared life in common, where a community can be a locus of soul-making and bestowing blessing upon its individual members–and moreover, a community where we can respond to being desired by God by communally desiring God in return.

I know this is the case for me–my family is queer all on its own, though I’m the only person in it who identifies as queer. I’m a divorced, gay, non-custodial parent who lives 1,200 miles distant from my kid, born the old-fashioned way in my previous mixed-orientation marriage. My experience of what “family” is has been redefined by virtue of accident and geography, and it is decidedly non-traditional–but I’m still my child’s father by blood, her dad by choice, and our relationship is such that it opens deep wells of love within me that I’m never quite sure are there until I hear, see, or touch her. It’s astoundingly difficult and yet this “family arrangement” pulls riches out of my soul I didn’t realize lay buried under my own fears and doubts about whether or not I’m still her dad at the end of the day.

In the household of God it’s as if we are still living under one roof, and in that space I find us both in the divine thelema, living as family together with my blood relatives as well as those brothers and sisters, those with whom I share not blood but an experience of living in the divine desire. Together our love for Christ and belovedness by Christ grafts us into a gene-transcending family tree. And that familial space becomes an environment in which we can indeed grow into the full stature of the maturity of Christ, for whom “family” meant an unwed mom, a foster dad, petulant half-brothers, and a band of friends who loved him in absurd and beautiful ways.

I think in some ways it is a calling to embrace a queer way of doing family, because the witness of a queer family tells the world that shalom is not just for the socially privileged, for the normal, for the regular. The beauty of divine desire is that it embraces the weirdnesses that we all carry with us throughout our life. And my concern in all of this is whether or not our churches will be inclusive enough to recognize the way that divine desire is already knitting people together into divine families, weirdnesses and all. Perhaps one day they will; until then, we’ll keep on being family.

Pride and Pentecost

The fact that Pentecost is occurring on the same weekend as one of the largest Pride events on the east coast isn’t lost on me.

Pentecost is a weird spoke in the wheel of the year, but it’s an amazing one all the same. As the Orthodox hymn for the feast goes, “Blessed art Thou, Christ our God, Who didst make the fishermen wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit, and through them didst draw the world into Thy net. Lover of humanity, glory to Thee.” There’s a deep, deep transformation at the heart of the Pentecost experience, a great reversal–interesting that Luke, who is so interested in the Great Reversal, is the one who preserves this story for us: utterly unqualified people become the voice of God, calling the nations back into God’s fold.

Pride celebrations in June were begun in an effort to commemorate and celebrate the beginnings of what has come to be known as the “gay civil rights” movement, in particular the Stonewall Riot of 1969. As one telling of the story goes, the riot began when several patrons of the Stonewall Inn were being hauled away under false pretenses by police–they had done nothing wrong, other than celebrating who they were in the company of friends. As this was happening, someone shouted, “don’t just stand there, do something!” The ensuing chaos became the spark that enkindled a major wave of LGBTQ activism, identity-claiming, and fighting for equal protection under the law. No longer would people like me accept mistreatment for something they have no control over.

The whole Stonewall story sparks my imagination of the events of Pentecost, which need not be rehashed. Could it be that the prompting of the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles as tongues of fire and sent them out in the streets, as if the Spirit were saying, “don’t just wait here, do something!” And can’t Peter’s message to the crowd of people from all over the Mediterranean basin be summarized in similar words–“don’t just stand there, do something!”

Both Pentecost and Pride are seasons for owning identities. Pentecost sees catechumens being baptized and candidates receiving their holy orders as together they join in calling the world into the Ekklesia of God. Pride sees a celebration of people who are striving towards integration, called out because of their identity and difference from what was considered “normal.” Pride is fundamentally about finding comfort in the “counter, original, spare, strange” ways that make queer folk unique.

Could it be that, in the Spirit’s movement, we might see a little bit of Pentecost amid all the rainbow flags and Mardi Gras beads? Sure, Pride is not without its excesses and debaucheries (then again, neither is Mardi Gras, which is rooted in Christian tradition anyway). But it provides a rare opportunity for the Church and the LGBTQ community to share a common pool of experiences, images, symbols, and metaphors. Pentecost was, after all, that glorious moment when the languages that broke humanity apart at Babel were transcended by the Holy Spirit, and perhaps one of the tongues being given to the Church now is that spoken by God’s queer kids.

Both seasons seem to be grounded in an experience of the life-giving spiral of pain and triumph. Peter was not ashamed to stand up and speak out in the face of castigation and judgment; neither were the men and women at Stonewall ashamed to stand up and speak out. And like Pride, Pentecost is that time where we get to be proud to be the Ekklesia of God, to open ourselves to a renewed sense of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, and let that renewed awareness propel us to works of piety and works of mercy in our mission to transform the world with the love of Christ. And maybe, just maybe, the invitation stands open for us to listen to ways in which LGBTQ folks are preaching the Gospel in new tongues to us Christians, as the Spirit once again empowers the voices of those whom others have dubbed unqualified.

Stumbling through Silence

I attempted to have a retreat day today.

I say attempted because nothing quite went as planned. It was my original plan to spend the day with the Benedictine sisters at the monastery a couple of zip codes over. That was actually my plan B; my original plan was to spend the weekend at St. Anselm’s abbey in downtown DC, but I’m broke and I didn’t want to be that guy who couldn’t pay the suggested donation. Plan B ended up not working out, as I woke up a full two hours after my alarm went off, then had to deal with a faulty tire on my car. By the time I ended up leaving the house it was already 11:00AM, and I had told the sisters I’d be there around 9:00.

After driving around aimlessly for some time attempting to get into an appropriate frame of mind (and largely failing), I found myself pulling into the parking lot of a Roman Catholic parish on a back road in rural Fairfax County. Even though the cornerstone pegged it as being built in 1990, the stone construction and rough-hewn, lichen-covered celtic cross at its pinnacle gave it an old world aura. I checked the website just to be sure it was open, and indeed it was, so I let myself into the church, rubbed a few drops of holy water on my forehead, and found a seat in a pew to begin the quiet day I was supposed to have started almost six hours ago.

And then I hit a wall.

Quiet days are a difficult discipline for me because they put me in close contact with the shadowy places in my own heart that largely wallow in self-doubt and self-loathing. Not only that, but “quiet time” was a staple of the civil religion of my evangelical past; if you didn’t have regular quiet time, you weren’t doing Christianity right. It became a major source of guilt–I would hear stories from peers about how “God met” them in their quiet time and apparently gave them some kind of divine revelation, or supernatural comfort, or some other such nonsense. But my quiet times always resulted in me either sitting with my thoughts, as I now was, or falling asleep. Some spiritual giant I was.

Okay, I thought to myself, time to let the Holy Spirit work. So I sat there for a few minutes trying to collect myself and enter into that mental “thin place” where the numinous is right there, breathing on you–but nothing happened. I sat for a few more minutes, waiting. Nothing. Slowly I let my eyes wander around the sanctuary, taking in the statues, the stonework, the flickering sanctuary lamp, all veiled in the grey-blue light of a cloudy sky wafting its way through a canopy of poplar and maple. You’re really bad at this. Your prayer life sucks. Are you sure you’re supposed to be a priest?

Being in the silence of that chapel today was difficult not only because  it was reminding me of my perceived spiritual ineptitude; it was also as if I had been listening to an old mix CD I found buried in my car, a mix of all my shadow-side recordings, all the ones reminding me of how much of a screw-up I am, how unqualified I am to be in ministry, how unloveable I am. When I can keep myself distracted, I do alright, but sitting in quiet puts that mix CD in the player once more. Those thoughts are painful. And here I was, in the midst of what was supposed to be holy time, and they were having free rein.

There came a point in the midst of this when I remembered that my therapist and I had been working on the idea of self-compassion. In that moment I let go of trying to silence the thoughts, and instead I let my gut be moved for myself.

Self-compassion is a strange feeling. The feeling you have when you see an injured animal, or a crying child, or a poor person begging for food–there’s a peculiar feeling right in the pit of your stomach that stops you in your tracks, as if your soul is lurching out of your gut towards that person or animal. Think about that feeling, then think about turning it in on yourself. It’s weird. And it’s holy.

In the midst of that chapel that’s exactly what I tried to do. I expected it to make the thoughts go away, but it didn’t. As I let myself feel compassion towards myself it was as if the volume was turned down on the thoughts and I could allow myself to listen more deeply to the silence of the holy space I was in. It wasn’t perfect, just a taste of silence. But it was enough. Enough to pray, enough to soak in the numinous that was right there, breathing over me. Enough to let the words of the Veni Creator come to fruition, just for an instant, to hear the Holy Spirit speaking for the Father once again: you’re my beloved.

Perhaps there will come a point when I can let my shadow-side tapes become part of my prayers. I know that even in the midst of my frustration with the whole practice of retreat that the Holy Spirit is praying through me and my thoughts with groans that I can neither hear nor understand, and that is comfort.

Terraces and Trajectories (or, the hazards of Facebook)

Earlier this afternoon I was absent-mindedly flipping through Facebook, as I am wont to do on lazy spring Sunday afternoons, and I saw a set of photos someone had posted of the beautiful planter garden that they had put together on their Washington DC terrace apartment with their impossibly handsome fiance. I flopped over on my borrowed bed and buried my face my borrowed duvet cover and let out a Tina Belcher-esque moan: he’s successful; I’m not.
Facebook has become something of a source of frustration for me in the last couple of weeks because it reminds me of the manifold ways in which my life has taken a different direction than many of those in my peer group. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this is something that an increasing number of twenty-somethings are experiencing. I’m not sure where I expected to be as I approached my twenty-sixth birthday, but four months to the day away from it I’m fairly positive that living with my parents and scraping by with my overnight non-profit job and sleeping on a borrowed mattress was not it.
It used to be that I had dreams–plans, ambitions even. It’s not that I don’t have those dreams anymore, because I certainly do, and I still have a vocation and a path that I’m walking. But they’re vastly different from the dreams of the wide- and wild-eyed teenager who left home at seventeen years old to become a composer. For the first time–this is a big deal–I don’t feel like I’m running from anything (that’s an entire post on its own).

But having this trajectory is not an antidote to those feelings of, “could I have done better in a STEM field? Could I have done better if I had stayed and finished out my PhD? Could I have done better if I had made different decisions about my life?”
The answer to those questions, I think, isn’t a yes or a no. I could have done differently if I had gone to this school or taken that degree or done that internship–but ultimately living in the realm of possibilities and regrets is not going to help me find the satiety that I need in this present moment. Part and parcel of my current vocation is to be both mindful and thankful of the place I am in right now. Those things I find myself envious of are often things that I know would be toxic to my own vocation and identity. And so the cognitive distortion of he’s successful, I’m not, remains just that: a cognitive distortion, not grounded in reality at all.
And so my answer to those questions of, “could I be the one with a handsome fiance and a kickass apartment in Washington DC and a six-figure salary if I had just done things differently?” is “yes, at the cost of who I am in this moment.” I am not that person. And I accept the fact that I am envious of them. It’s okay.
Because I’m not that person, and I have a life unto which I’ve been called to live. And it’s a good life, successful even, because I have a roof over my head and food on my table, which is more than an uncomfortably large number of people have. Moreover I have a job, and a career trajectory, and the support of a loving network of family and friends across the country and the world who are holding me up and walking with me into my calling. The person that I am in this moment is precisely the person whom God needs me to be. And to live into the calling of God is success in its own right, not on the terms of Facebook.
(Even though I’d be able to throw some awesome dance parties on a terrace like that.)

Meaty Memory

Because I function as a chaplain to the residents at my workplace, I’m known to wear a clerical collar from time to time. It always seems to catch residents off guard the first time they see me in it–here is this linebacker of a man with spiky hair, spikes in his ears, and tattoos running down his arm in the garment of a religious professional. To be honest it still catches me off guard a bit when I see myself in the mirror with a plastic rectangle digging into my neck–when did I become this contradiction of life and brokenness?

The last time I came to work collared up, one of my residents asked me, “what does a pastor do?” Despite having been to seminary for four and a half years and writing page upon page of ordination paperwork, I was more or less at a loss for a succinct answer to her question. So I rattled off the usual things: pastors take care of people, they’re there to help people when needed, pray for people, preach about Jesus, and so forth. Seeing that my off-the-cuff answer was not satisfying my resident’s question, I thought about it a little bit harder, and this unexpectedly fell out of my mouth:

“A pastor is a person who helps people remember things.”

What the hell does that even mean? What’s interesting to me is that, for as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve had some concept of what a pastor does. My dad is a pastor, so naturally what I see him doing is what I understand pastoral ministry to be. And since I made this observation about the role of the pastor, I’ve been thinking through what I’ve seen him do, and what I’ve seen other pastors do across the entire spectrum of Christianity, and what I myself have been doing as I’ve grown into my vocation–it’s all been the heavy-duty work of remembrance.

The “remembrance” I’m speaking about here isn’t simply walking through significant events as a mental exercise–“remember that time when…”–but rather, a kind of participatory remembrance that refreshes and enfleshes the experience of a person’s identity as they live their life in community. It’s that kind of meaty memory, anamnesis (as the liturgy nerds say), that isn’t simply remembering that “this happened to me,” but rather, “this happened to me and it is shaping my soul.” It’s that kind of memory we’re digging into when we throw water at folks and ask them to remember a baptism that many have no ability to recall mentally as it happened when they were so young. And yet, we still call them to remember things lost to the fog of time! The depth of anamnesis is something that happens in the community psyche, not the intellect of the individual, and in that depth there is great power.

With water and oil and ash and bread and wine the pastor gives the people footholds of memory:
“You are sealed as Christ’s own forever.”
“The body and blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life.”
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“Even at the grave we make our song: ‘alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!'”
As the community gathers around its members and sees its members scaling the wall of human experience using these footholds, the community itself becomes a witness to the collective, meaty memories that have formed its individual members.

Clinging to the mountainside on her own footholds of memory stands the pastor, from Sunday to Sunday and in the 167 intervening hours ever beckoning: “remember who you are and whose you are! You are Christ’s own!” And she offers the bread and wine once more, she prays once more, she offers another sandwich, writes another benevolence check, baptizes another baby, buries another beloved friend, and stuffs another bulletin. More footholds emerge, and as the community scales the wall they begin to shine brighter with the radiance of Christ’s likeness.

So, that’s what a pastor does. I think. I’m still learning. But with joy I remember the footholds of memory that have formed me more into Christ’s likeness–my baptism, the temple of my childhood, Eucharists and mountaintops, tears and despair, confessions and penances, my orders and my doubt. And I am finding my voice, so that from my place on the mountainside I can call out: remember!

Let God be Dead (for now)

“God, according to Luther, is found first on a cross, beaten and dead, not as a masochist but as a bearer of what is, a God who takes on our destiny of death in all its forms…God is found in the despair of the cross. God is found in our many deaths, bringing possibility out of nothingness.” – Andrew Root, The Promise of Despair
 
You have faced a lot of deaths this week, Soul. A combination of rejection, disappointment, and outright grief at the losses and lesions that have made this the Very Worst Holy Week Ever. And now this night God is dead.
 
It is okay for God to be dead. Yes, Soul,  there is an overblown Newsboys concert presently in theatres dressed up with interviews from the Duck Dynasty boys (bois?) that loudly proclaims God’s Not Dead! but in order to really call yourself Christian you have to meet the dead God. Have you met that God, Soul?
 
Can you look at God’s broken body, wracked with abuse and despair? Or is that too hard for you, Soul? Is our God only someone you understand when you are on the mountaintop, ignoring the piercing gaze of the monster of Death through the feeble veil of mass-marketed, glossy, high-octane saccharine joy? Or will you look at the dead God, who has entered into despair to destroy it from within?
 
It is comfort that God dies. Because in God’s death, God knows the despair that is winding its stitches through the sinews of your heart and body. God knows your loneliness, your brokenness, your sorrow unto death. Soul, can you enter into the passion of the despairing Christ, who despaired to rob the monster of death of its power? Can you look with awe on the one who gilt the trees with blossom and leaf, now himself pierced upon his very creation? The one for whom the earth shakes, wracked with sobs? It is here that God is lifted up and glorified in the flesh of the failed Messiah, the abandoned Teacher, hung on the tree and clothed in ragged, whispered promises of resurrection.
 
Soul, let yourself be crucified with God. Die with God that you may rise with God. In your darkness, in your wounds, in your ache and sehnsucht, there is God crucified, beaten, and dead, absorbing your despair as God undoes death from the inside. That is, after all, the only way to destroy the monster: from within. Do not rush the resurrection. Let God linger in the grave, sitting with you in your death. And when your death has been consumed, it will blossom forth in new life, Soul.
 
“In the tomb in body, in Hades in the soul, in Paradise with the thief, and seated at the right hand of the Father, you did circumscribe all things, oh Christ, yourself uncircumscribeable.”