Jul 31, 2019

In Good Faith: The Power of No

In my August In Good Faith column, I write about what might be lost if we stop saying "no" to our children.

The Power of No

“We don’t use the word ‘no’ in our home.” 

A friend of mine recently told me her teenage daughter is babysitting for a family who made
this declaration when she was hired. Shunning the n-word is apparently a hot new parenting trend, as mothers and fathers seek a solutions-based approach to child rearing, rather than a punitive model.

So, at the grocery store, when a child demands a box of Sugary Sugar Bombs cereal, rather than declare “no!” in a thunderous, Zeus-like voice, a parent seeks to engage and turn the conversation into a lesson. “I know you’d really like that cereal, but all the sugar wouldn’t be good for your teeth. Let’s find a more healthy option.” 

Of course trying to reason with a two-year-old sounds like a recipe for a meltdown, but what do I know? My kids are now Sugary Sugar Bombs-eating 18 and 20-year-olds. But then, every generation is amazed the previous generation even made it to adulthood, and every generation thinks the previous generation got parenting wrong. It’s the circle of parenting life. 

I mean, it’s amazing I survived the choking hazards of my play pen. It’s amazing my mother and father survived without car seats and seat belts. And evidently it’s amazing my own children survived the constant barrage of hearing “no.” “No, you can’t have a pet giraffe. No, we can’t trade in the mini-van for a bulldozer. No, you can’t root for the Yankees.”

But I do worry about children for whom the word “no” is verboten. The reality is that life is full of “no” and the sooner you learn to either cope with disappointment or find the resilience to circumnavigate it, the better. 

When it comes to the life of prayer, it’s often said that God offers three responses: yes, no, and wait. You don’t necessarily receive these responses as text messages. More often they are discernible through the unfolding actions and events of your life. It’s difficult when the answer is “no,” especially if we seek something important to us or to those we love. 

But we rarely, if ever, see the big picture of our lives. There’s a giant chasm between the human perspective and the divine perspective, and we can’t always know the broader implications of our petitions. Much of life, you could say, is above our pay grade. “No” is often the answer when it would negatively impact our own lives or those around us, even if we remain blind to the hidden reasons — that’s where this whole faith thing comes in. And when the answer is “no,” the first impulse is often to stomp our feet and yell at God. Yet even a “no” response means that God is listening and playing an active role in our lives.  

“No” is an important part of life and an integral piece of the human condition. Shielding children from the word, won’t safeguard them from the concept. Yes, I understand there are times when parents, especially those of special needs children, must redirect the conversation and avoid using negative terms. And there are times when we could all use some reframing from the negative to the positive. 

Yet, at the risk of sounding like someone who, back in my day, walked two miles to school in the snow, without shoes, uphill both ways, children must hear “no” in order to learn hard lessons that will ultimately allow them to thrive. In the meantime, I have some sugary cereal to eat.

Jul 10, 2019

In Good Faith: Where Are They Now

In my July In Good Faith column, I write about connections to the past through long-forgotten sports stars.

Where Are They Now?

My favorite Sports Illustrated issue of the year came in the mail this week. No, not that
issue. That one comes the week after the Super Bowl, and I’m decidedly not in the market for a new swimsuit. 

I’m referring to the magazine’s annual Where Are They Now feature. For years, Sports Illustrated has been catching up with stars who long ago left the bright lights of the headlines. Some of these highlighted athletes remain in the public consciousness, while others have drifted away as quickly as they burst onto the scene.

I’ve long loved this particular issue, and I always end up reading a lot more of the magazine than I normally do — which, in middle age, has mostly become flipping through the pictures and handing it to my sports-crazed eldest son. 

But this issue’s different. For one thing, Ben hasn’t heard of many of the profiled players. Like most of his contemporaries, he’s concerned with the here and now of pro sports; with the stats and standings and current stars. And I get that this is basically a nostalgia issue, a bone tossed to my generation. When I find the time to sit down with it, there’s always a lot of inner “Oh, yeah! I remember that guy. I wonder what he’s been up to since his glory days?”

It’s hard to know why these stories resonate so deeply. Part of it is voyeurism, to be sure. Who among us hasn’t Googled an old girlfriend or boyfriend? But mostly it plays to the natural longing for connections to our past. If I can learn what a childhood hero of mine has been up to of late, say former Orioles slugger Eddie Murray, I can somehow reconnect to a part of my life that has long been repressed. Suddenly, I’m an 8-year-old sitting in the stands with my late father at the since-demolished Memorial Stadium in Baltimore with a .75 hot dog in one hand and my baseball glove in the other, chanting “Ed-die, Ed-die!”

There’s also a deep sense of humanity that plays out in these articles. During a star’s playing days, we’re mostly concerned with statistics and on-field performance. We rarely stop to consider what kind of person we may be rooting for or against. Players have images, for sure, but these are often highly crafted by agents and public relations professionals. Here, then, is a glimpse behind the curtain, a chance to see someone outside the lines.

There’s something about revealing the unvarnished humanity that reminds us that these aren’t superheroes, but people like you and me, but with particular talents and supernatural hand-eye coordination. Or, from a spiritual perspective, these are all children of God, reflecting all the joys and imperfections of humanity. Some have gone on to find new passions — former Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis runs an award-winning brewery in California — and some have encountered more tragedy than acclaim — William “The Refrigerator” Perry daily battles alcoholism and issues of mental health. 

I think there are lessons for all of us embedded in these stories. We’re reminded that life does indeed go on. Some of us remain prisoners of the past, some of us move on into new and exciting challenges. Most of us remain somewhere in-between. But it’s important to reflect back on our lives, even while looking ahead to the future. We all have various chapters in our lives, albeit not necessarily ones lived out on highlight reels. And we must continually seek ways to stay in the game. 

Jun 17, 2019

When the Music Stops: A Pilgrimage of Death and Dying

This past fall, we held an adult education series at St. John’s on the topic of pilgrimage,
broadly defined. Among the presentations, our associate rector shared her experience walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain; a parishioner shared her journey of addiction and recovery; a group from the parish offered reflections on their recent mission trip experience in South Africa. 

As we were building the series, I told the committee I’d be willing to share a personal story about death and dying, recognizing that such experiences speak to a universal pilgrimage, but only if we couldn’t find someone else to do it. Perhaps not surprisingly, I ended up presenting at one of the sessions.

I’ve decided to share this story about my father’s death, not because there’s a single definitive way to experience loss, but because it is often through such touchpoints in others’ stories that we find commonalities, hope, and inspiration. That’s one of the joys of community, in the broadest sense. 

Why now? Probably because dads in general and mine in particular are on my mind in the aftermath of Father’s Day. Plus, turning 50 last year and losing my dad at 51 is likely cranking up my soul’s introspection machine.

Here’s what I said:

Obviously I’ve walked with a lot of people through death and dying over 19 years of ordained ministry. Some of them have been your loved ones or friends or fellow parishioners. And everyone here, most likely, has had that same experience, of walking this journey with people they care deeply about. But I want to share a personal story, one that impacted my own life and vocational path, and continues to resonate with me, and informs who I am as a person and as a priest. My hope is that you will find resonances and places to connect, but I also recognize that each story is unique and charged with its own emotion — some positive, some negative, some still being worked out. And that’s okay. None of this is ever emotionally neat and tidy. Grief, after all, is not linear.

Over the years I’ve shared pieces of this story from the pulpit. But not in such a full and intentional way as I’ll do right now. Some of you know that my father, Andrew, was a symphony orchestra conductor. The reason I grew up in Baltimore was because he was the associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony. His career had some ups and downs — not because he wan’t a brilliant musician — but precisely because he was all about the music. He was never very good at playing the game; at schmoozing symphony boards and donors and playing politics. He would rather put his head in a score than have lunch at a fancy restaurant with a CEO; or take his boys to a ballgame than be fawned over by socialites calling him “maestro.” 

But put him in front of an orchestra and he came alive, he was a dynamo on the podium, and musicians and audiences and critics loved him.

Around the age of 50 he got cancer, a melanoma. He had surgery, they thought they got it, it went away for awhile, but when it came back the following year, it came back with a vengeance.

From a career perspective the timing was pretty cruel. In the last several years of his life, he had finally made it to the top of his profession — and on his terms — without selling his soul and without sacrificing his family — and was just on the verge of a major international career when the cancer first appeared.

One of the last concerts he ever conducted turned out to be his most inspired performance. It was a live recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (a world premiere of a Samuel Barber choral piece, The Lovers, along with Barber's Prayers of Kierkegaard) and, fortunately, I was able to be there — which wasn’t a given, but I had weekend leave from Ft. Knox where I was spending four months training to be a tank platoon leader — something which has come in handy in parish ministry. 

Professionally, this was the most significant night of his career. Here he was doing a world premiere recording with one of the best orchestras in the world. And he was dying. He didn’t tell this to anyone — no one knew except his family — but somehow he summoned the strength to put his very soul into the music. The recording ending up winning a Grammy Award — something we found out on Ash Wednesday the month after he died at the age of 51.

About a week before his death, my commanding officer called me into his office and told me
I had to pack up and go home. Immediately. I was just finishing up my tour at Fort Knox and so the timing was good in that sense. We had just come back from 10 days out in the field and all that remained were a few more days of paperwork and so, in a very un-Army-like move, they let me just go. I hopped in my car to drive back to Baltimore knowing that my father didn’t have much time left. 

Along the way, my car started acting up and it finally broke down in Flatwoods, West Virginia. I’ll never forget the name of that town, because that’s where I had to spend the night. And there is no more helpless feeling than knowing that your father is dying and you can’t get back to see him. That you are trapped in a godforsaken town named Flatwoods, West Virginia, while the only place in the world you wanted to be was home; that the clock was running down and you were powerless to stop it.

Eventually, I did make it home. My dad was there, set up on a hospice bed in the living room of my parents’ Fells Point house. He was gaunt, physically a shell of himself. His hair was gone. But mostly, I remember his eyes. Until the day he died, they never lost their sparkle. And his mind — the thing he valued the most. He never lost his mind. Or his beautiful spirit, which only seemed to increase as his physical body wasted away.

There was a surreal quality that surrounded the next week. My dad’s sister had flown in from Israel to be there, to help nurse him at the end. They were close growing up, but distance had kept them apart. And this sibling reconnection was inspiring to behold. At night my mother sang hymns and read poetry to him. My brother and I would sit with him and tell him we loved him and share memories, awkwardly sometimes, with great intention and sweetness at others. 

And there was a constant parade of people that came through the house. Not an unruly crowd — that was afterwards. But the important people in my dad’s life. People who came to say goodbye;  people my dad was waiting to see. Until finally, everyone had come. And he slipped peacefully away. 

And then, literally the moment after he died, one of his best friends, who was an Episcopal priest who had visited him regularly, happened to knock on the door. Somehow he just knew. And he prayed with us beautifully and deeply and heartbreakingly.

In the immediate aftermath of his death I remember a sense of relief. And I couldn’t tell at first whether it was relief that my father’s suffering had ended or relief that we no longer had to go on living in this limbo between life and death that had become increasingly difficult. And I remember feeling guilty about feeling relief. But I’ve come to learn that it’s okay. That these two sides of relief are not mutually exclusive. 

What I tried to be was angry. I mean, on the surface of things, my father had every reason to be bitter. Again, the timing was just so cruel. His career was taking off, his children were finally leaving the nest, his 25-year marriage remained the bedrock of his life. And yet life was slipping away.

Someone who had every right to be angry and filled with self-pity was instead filled with peace and joy and love. I couldn’t understand it. And rage and anger at the situation felt good and righteous! But you just couldn’t hold on to these darker emotions in the presence of that serenity.

So where did it come from? This inconceivable and all-encompassing peace? Well, it was faith, of course. Which was not something that came naturally or automatically to my dad. Despite a lifetime of church going, it wasn’t until the last few months that the words he had been proclaiming all those years — in prayers and creeds and hymns — were experienced first-hand as the peace and freedom of true relationship with Jesus Christ.

He had entered into that peace of God which passes all understanding. Amid the pain, he was able to give thanks for the abundant blessings of this life. Despite the seeming unfairness of it all, he was able to be at peace with God. He knew that Jesus was calling him not to a bitter end, but to eternal life.

After he died, as I was in the throes of profound grief and sadness, I knew that I wanted that same sense of peace. Not as something to possess but as something to experience and to share with others. Which in many ways is why I do what I do, and why I continue to seek that often elusive sense of peace, which I know can only come through faith in Jesus Christ.

And as I found myself wondering where Jesus could possibly have been in all of this, it took the dying man himself to make me see precisely where Jesus was. Watching my father’s response, his unwavering faith in the face of death, opened my eyes to the fact that Jesus was just as present with him on the podium, as with our family in those last days, and in his final breath. That’s where Jesus was; right there with all of us. In the tears, in the laughter, in the spark of my father’s eyes even as he neared the end, in the memories, in the grief.

My father’s last words were “Good things are happening.” Which, again, on the surface of things sounds like a cruel joke. But at another level it was unvarnished truth. Because he was entering into that place where, as the burial rite puts it, “sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” And that is indeed a good place to be.

Jun 6, 2019

In Good Faith: Garbage Time

In this month's In Good Faith column, I write about living in the present and the perils of being a scrub.

Garbage Time

Garbage time. In basketball, that’s what they call the last few minutes of a blowout. The time
when the outcome of the contest has already been decided, and the two teams are literally just running out the clock before they head to the showers. Since no coach wants to risk an injury to a star player during the last few meaningless minutes, garbage time is ruled by subs and rookies It’s a time for third-stringers to shine, a chance to make a positive impression on coaches and dazzle fans with their hidden prowess. Alas, there’s a reason most of these players haven’t cracked the starting lineup: they’re just not that good.

There are times in our own lives when it feels like we’re just running out the clock; times when we spend more time anticipating future events rather than living in the present. Waiting for our toddlers to get out of diapers, waiting to receive a coveted promotion, waiting to finally become empty nesters. If we’re not careful, we can spend a significant portion of our lives in a self-imposed garbage time. And that’s a sad and joyless state in which to exist.

So how do you break out of this? How do you find joy in the present even as you anticipate that which is to come? Well, if I had an easy answer, I would have already written a bestselling self-help book. But from my own Christian tradition, I find that a few moments each day of intentional, contemplative silence is helpful. It helps keep life in perspective and makes you mindful of the small joys that permeate our seemingly mundane daily lives. Silence forces you to step off the metaphorical treadmill, walk away from your electronic devices, and reflect upon the often taken for granted blessings of your life.

Sure, silence can be both elusive and scary. It’s difficult to carve out moments of quiet in our fast-paced existences, and silence forces us to confront things about ourselves we might prefer to drown out. Yet it also brings balance to our souls and delight in the small, unheralded triumphs of our lives.

In the church year we often talk about “Ordinary Time.” There are actually two such seasons, one that lasts anywhere from four to nine weeks starting on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, and one that begins after Pentecost (usually in May or June) and lasts up to 28 weeks. 

These seasons are not “ordinary” in the sense of being boring or useless. Rather they are so named because they reflect the fact that, liturgically speaking, they are not dedicated to a particular season or observance. 

Some people might see these long periods as the church’s garbage time. There’s nothing flashy about them. There’s no festive Christmas Eve midnight mass or stark service of Good Friday during Ordinary Time. You won’t encounter colorful vestments or over-the-top processions. And yet, when it comes to faith, there’s no such thing as garbage time. All time is holy and sanctified and blessed; no time is meaningless or insignificant or unworthy of praise. Indeed, the most surprising moments of our lives often occur when we least expect them. 

It’s been said that basketball would be much more compelling if they just awarded 100 points to each team and started the game with two minutes left. I’m not sure about that. But I encourage you to be aware of areas of your life you may be treating as garbage time — and commit to changing up your approach. The game of life is too short to waste.

May 20, 2019

What difference does it all make?

This weekend, as we were wrapping up our year-long Confirmation Class and offering one
final session before our high schoolers will be Confirmed, one of them asked a great question: "What difference does it all make?" 

In other words, why does the death and resurrection of Jesus matter? Why not just sleep in on Sunday morning and leave this Christian stuff to others? 

I loved this question because it gets at the very heart of why we do what we do. This is precisely where the spiritual rubber meets the road, a question that forces us to reflect upon our own experience and understanding of the Christian faith and life. And it's a question we need to ask ourselves, if not daily, then at least regularly. 

I posed this question on Twitter because I wanted to share some of the answers with our Confirmands. I hoped to show them that this is an important question for Christians everywhere, not just for a group of 15 kids sitting around a table with a few adults in a church basement.

In the Episcopal Church, Confirmation is termed "a mature public affirmation of faith." It's aspirational, but this is the kind of introspection that leads to a mature faith -- something we all continue to strive for wherever we may be on our own spiritual journeys. We don't have all the answers, individually, but collectively we can point to the broader concept of meaning as we reflect on why this all matters. And I for one take great solace and inspiration in the variety of answers that emerge. 

I couldn't possibly share all the answers that continue to roll in. But here are some of the responses. I encourage you to think about this yourself and perhaps even share your own answer as a comment.

@lindsaymonihen: It means choosing hope over despair, which I believe is a more challenging road. The resurrection means hate, war and hunger do not have the final word in our world; there is an outrageous hope calling us forward.

@bishopannehec: Resurrection frees us from fear of death and all captivities. By faith in such freedom we become newly alive, engaged with earthly life in a heavenly way. Resurrection gives us a lens of courage to confront evil; a lens of hope to overcome despair; a lens of love to cast out hate.

@jericson1963: The death and resurrection of Christ means I am never alone, never beyond love, hope and a sure and certain future.

@allancarpenter: The difference is, quite personally for me, the faith that all things are made new versus the perspective that all things are winding down into oblivion. It’s a big one.

@revsusanrussell: Jesus liberates us from the fear of death: from worrying so much about getting to heaven that we’re too paralyzed by fear to work to bring heaven to earth. We are freed to be fully alive by the power of the resurrection – healed, whole and liberated in this life and the next.

@loudluthrn: Trusting that God loves me and frees me from the power of sin and death through Jesus has helped me live a more abundant life in (often surprising) relationship with others. It is sometimes hard but a seed of joy and peace can always be found to keep me going.

@Knapsack: Hope that can keep us going in the face of possible (likely) defeat, because Jesus should by all earthly rights have been destroyed and forgotten, which was Power's intent: but instead, he lives. And frees us (me) to risk failure to speak truth.

@cbdemp: Because there is nothing too dark, too scary, too terrifying, too daunting that Jesus and in turn, God, hasn’t experienced. There is nowhere I find myself, Jesus hasn’t been.

@BethanyUA: I don’t need to be afraid of anything: Not death or being wrong or embarrassing myself or anyone’s opinion. I trust that God is working out the details and my job is to choose love every day. I can’t live this way 100%, but God understands when I miss the mark and loves me anyway.

@gojirama: I can't imagine facing the death of loved ones, or my own death, without the promise of the Resurrection.

@FortnightBuzz63: Ultimately, I am not alone. I'm not alone in the struggle and suffering of life, and I will not be alone in the mystery of dying. In the end when I lose everything else I won't lose God's companionship.

@julien650: Hope. If he lives, we live. No matter how deep I am in despair and darkness, the light of Jesus can bring me back to life - can restore my brokenness to wholeness and I can live again.

@jathko: If Jesus can take the worst of the worst (horrible humiliation & death) & turn it into something so glorious, then he can most definitely take the rot in my life & the shadow of what’s to come & transform that into a thing of beauty. I’ve tasted it & have a certain hope for more.

@thekitchendoor3: Because death is everywhere. We lose loved ones, we lose our own lives, we see the oppression and suffering around us. Resurrection means the story doesn’t stop there.

@MichaelJMcCall: If my immortal soul is safe with the Lord, then I need not be focused on my own behavior against a set of requirements. This gift allows me to become less selfish and focus on the needs of others, which are both earthly and spiritual.

@thefunrevucc: The resurrection is the fulfillment of the promise of God’s everlasting and unconditional love. Nothing I do will change God’s love for me. More important, nothing my worst enemy does will ever change God’s love for that person, either. So better to love than hate!

@JimMead18283862: I know I'm valued and loved by a creator who will have the last word about me, & about everything and everyone else--justice & mercy! I live with hope, courage, accountability. I talk to a living Jesus, not an idea. I treat others differently bc Jesus is risen. Meaning! Purpose!

@garysdeskcom: From a Christian perspective: somehow, through Jesus’ passion we are saved. On a broader level: evil does not always win. Good can come out of bad. On a personal level: God cares. God just gets how much life can suck.

@HeyImJoeTheBear: Jesus took the burden I was meant to be take. He gave me the free gift of forgiveness. Nothing I can do can repay that debt and I live in joy because of it.

@johnrovell: It reminds me that no matter how dark things get or how badly I f*ck up, there is always a chance for rebirth and mercy and new efforts. Jesus rising from the dead basically allows me to raise my head up every day and keep trying, trusting that God is not done with me.

@NoVACLC: It's a simple day to day thing. Nothing is ever so bad that we don't get another chance tomorrow.

@perdue_jrp: There's always hope. No matter how bad it gets, God will come through for you.

@SmudgeThomas: Strength to get through. God carries you through the worst of the worst times and builds you up so grandly.