Mar 18, 2021

In Good Faith: Shielding the Joyous

In my latest In Good Faith column, I write about my fear of needles, vaccine selfies, and joy amidst grief.

Shielding the Joyous

Needles make me squeamish. It’s always been that way, even though my kindly pediatrician was

a family friend. I dreaded going to his office as a kid, like a medieval prisoner headed to the rack.  I still have to look away whenever a nurse administers a shot during some hospital scene on a TV show, and ask my wife to tell me when it’s safe to resume watching. There was never a question of whether or not I’d be a pre-med major in college. 

So let’s just say the news has been hard to watch of late. As the vaccine distribution program has thankfully ramped up, there sure have been lots of close-ups of needles going into arms. It feels like camera operators take particular glee in the precise moment the needle breaks skin.  

And this doesn’t even begin to cover the vaccination selfies on Facebook. They are ubiquitous these days. In fact, I’m not sure if the vaccine is even fully effective if it’s not accompanied with a social media posting.

This isn’t to disparage those who share these photos. Especially at the beginning, when first responders or elderly parents were getting vaccinated in the first wave, this was cause of great jubilation and hope. And as we move toward herd immunity, seeing needles all over Instagram is a small price to pay. 

Yet I’m aware that these photos are hard to see for some — and not just for the squeamish among us. For those eagerly waiting for their vaccine turn, and the return of some form of normalcy, there’s a hint of jealousy at play. Yes, we’ll all get there. But for the isolated and lonely, the extroverted and the restless, patience is often elusive. 

It’s been a long, hard, trying year for everyone. We ache for human contact and connection, for the routines and rituals of regular social interaction. Seeing some get there sooner than others, as happy as we may be for them and as important as we know it is, leaves a portion of the population feeling left out. It’s temporary, of course, but it doesn’t minimize the feeling of being left behind. 

There’s a curious line in a favorite prayer of mine that invites the Lord to “shield the joyous.” I think it speaks to the fleeting nature of joy in a world that has its fair share of pain. We seek to amplify the joy of receiving the vaccine, even as this joy is surrounded by the profound grief of living through a deadly global pandemic. We mourn for the over half a million people who have died from COVID-19 in this country alone. We empathize with those who continue to suffer from the virus’ long-term effects. We wait with those who have yet to receive the vaccine. 

Whenever we end up getting vaccinated and returning to a modicum of pre-pandemic life, I pray that our joy will be shielded. That we will revel in once again being among those we most cherish, even as we recognize that not everyone is quite there yet, and some will never be.

Feb 11, 2021

#VirtualShrove - An Invitation

One of the best things about the Episcopal Church is the annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake

Supper. Call it what you will -- Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday -- but in parish halls across the land, the day before Lent kicks off is all about the pancakes.

At the parish I serve, St. John's in Hingham, Massachusetts, it's one of the great highlights of the year with fabulous food, an intergenerational crowd, pancake races, and the ritual burning of the palms from last year's Palm Sunday service, which we use to make ashes for the next day's Ash Wednesday liturgies.

But what you do when there's a pandemic and your community can't gather for the annual tradition? 

We actually have experience with this because in 2016, amid the infamous Snowmageddon, we had to hold a Virtual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper due to the INSANE amount of snow (plus a burst pipe to add to the fun). 

Just as we did then, we encourage you to join in your own feast by...eating pancakes on Tuesday!

Whether it's for breakfast, lunch, or dinner (or all three!), eat pancakes and then post pictures of your feast to social media with the hashtag #VirtualShrove. Whether you're eating pancakes alone or with your family, in a blinged out Mardi Gras mask or around a fire pit, why not show the world you're preparing for Lent?

Oh, and if you're curious as to why it's called Shrove Tuesday? Here's the deal:

The day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, is known as Shrove Tuesday. To shrive someone, in old-fashioned English (he shrives, he shrove, he has shriven), is to hear an acknowledgement of sins, assure the person of God's forgiveness, and to offer appropriate spiritual advice. The term survives today in ordinary usage in the expression "short shrift." To give someone short shrift is to pay very little attention to someone's excuses or problems. The longer expression is, "to give short shrift and a long rope," which formerly meant to hang a criminal with a minimum of delay. 

Shrove Tuesday is also called Fat Tuesday (in French, Mardi Gras) because on that day a thrifty housewife would use up the fats that she had kept around for cooking (the can of bacon drippings for instance). Fatty foods would not be eaten during the penitential season of Lent. Since pancakes were a standard way of using up fat, this day became associated with them. Which is why, of course, so many parishes hold Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers. So this last day before Lent has become the 'feast' to prepare for the time of 'famine' in the desert. 

May your pancakes be fluffy and your preparations, despite the circumstances, joyful. Stay safe out there, friends.

In Good Faith: A Many-Splendored Thing

In my February In Good Faith column, I write about the many-splendored opportunities to demonstrate love during a pandemic.

A Many-Splendored Thing

“Love is a many-splendored thing.” I could have sworn that was a line from Shakespeare and not

just a line with a link to the 1950s. A novel, a song, and a film of that title were all released in that post-war decade. Alas. I was even willing to spell it “splendoured” to make it look more Shakespearean.

Love is in the air this week with the imminent arrival of Valentine’s Day. Never mind that we can’t touch or breathe on other people these days, let alone hug or kiss them. And never mind that the day commemorates a third century priest who was beaten and stoned before his beheading at the hand of the Roman emperor for marrying couples in the Christian faith. So romantic!

But, since love is indeed a many-splendored thing, I’ve been reflecting on the different ways we’ve loved one another during this pandemic. Ironically enough, we’ve shown the greatest love for one another by staying apart. We’ve sacrificed the intimacy of friendships and extended family relationships by picking up the phone or logging onto Zoom. Rather than going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, we FaceTimed her. We found new ways to safely gather with friends, forsaking the indoor hearth for the outdoor fire pit. 

At the parish I serve, we’ve been fully remote for worship for nearly a year. Of course, we ache to be with one another in-person, but our context and guiding principle of loving our neighbor precludes that, and we’re willing to wait until it’s safe for us all to regather. This is an act of love, as difficult as it may be. And while our worship may be virtual, our faith is surely not. Which is why we’ve stayed connected to God and one another throughout this time.

While wearing masks has unfortunately been politicized, this too is ultimately an act of love. We wear masks as tangible signs that we care about our fellow human beings. Love involves sacrificing our own interests for the greater common good. Masks, in addition to being practical shields against a deadly virus, are symbols of our love for others. What would Jesus do? He’d wear a mask.

One act of love that’s inspired me recently came about after a phone call from one of my parishioners. She had just spent hours online seeking to secure vaccine appointments for her parents. After successfully working through the serpentine system, she wondered if we might form a small team of tech savvy folks to help older parishioners secure appointments. Within the hour, we were doing just that — providing resources, making calls, and navigating online portals on behalf of folks for whom the entire process was daunting. I’m convinced St. Valentine himself would have been proud of this effort.

I invite you to think about the creative ways you have shown love these past months; ways in which you have forged connections and deepened relationships amid trying circumstances. These are all displays of humanity at its very best. Sure, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (definitely Shakespeare). But even without the dozen roses emblematic of romantic love, love is a many-splendored thing. For love is what gives life meaning and infuses it, even during this season of pandemic, with hope.

Jan 15, 2021

In Good Faith: Can We Handle the Truth?

In my January In Good Faith column, I write about the Capitol insurrection, truth, and the legacy of Oscar Romero.

Can We Handle the Truth?

When I was on sabbatical a couple years ago, I visited a coffee farm in El Salvador, high up in 

the hills near Santa Ana. The farm had been in the same family for generations and it was a beautiful piece of property with coffee plants growing under canopies of banana trees. 

At one time there was a grand manor house on the plantation, but now all that remained were the ruins. It had been destroyed in the Salvadoran Civil War that started in the late 1970s. As I ran my hand along exterior walls still pockmarked by bullet holes, it was difficult to imagine the violence and bloodshed that had taken place just a few decades before.

Watching the images from our nation’s capital last week, reminded me of that day in Central America. Civil war, political violence, the inciting of riots, reckless rhetoric, armed gunmen, the destruction of property, murder  — these are all things I never thought could take place here in our country. Not because we’re better than anyone else — we surely are not — but because mob violence unleashed in the halls of Congress is inconsistent with the yearning for a more just and perfect Union. The cognitive dissonance between the rhetoric of our stated values and the reality of what we witnessed was both striking and heartbreaking.

Collectively, we watched the violation of a treasured national symbol unfold in real time, as it was desecrated by rioters, conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, and insurrectionists, some bearing Confederate flags and others wearing t-shirts with anti-semitic slogans. 

When I was on that coffee farm, I met the owner of the property, and he was a proud and gracious host. Over lunch I asked him about Oscar Romero, the former archbishop of El Salvador. I figured maybe he’d encountered him at some point and had a story to share about this saintly soul who risked everything to lift up his country’s poor and vulnerable populations. 

But at the first mention of Romero’s name, the man’s face clouded over. The charm dripped away into an icy stare and it dawned on me that, while I naively assumed everyone in the country loved and admired Romero and treasured him as a national hero, the ruling class did not. It was anti-government rebels who had destroyed the family home, and the monied class was strongly allied with the repressive military regime against which Romero had railed. Romero was a truth-teller, an advocate for social justice, an ally of the oppressed, one who condemned violence and torture, and a man whose vision of equality for all people contrasted sharply with the ideology and practices of a power hungry dictator. 

The day after preaching a sermon in which he called on all soldiers, as Christians, to stop carrying out the government’s orders to violate its citizens’ basic human rights, Oscar Romero was assassinated while standing at the altar celebrating mass; martyred for telling the truth.

If you’re a politician, truth-telling won’t necessarily get you reelected or make you popular with your base. And yet, if there is anything this country needs right now, it’s more truth-tellers. Leaders with the courage to stand up, despite the political winds, and tell people the truth without spin or bias or personal interest. We need less flag waving — whether that’s an American flag or a flag emblazoned with the name of a particular candidate — and more truth-telling. We need courageous truth-tellers to hold us all accountable when we stray from our national ideals, just as Archbishop Romero held the oppressors in El Salvador accountable for their despicable actions.

I’m not sure what our collective future holds as a nation. But I do know that we can disagree without demonizing one another. That we can seek truth rather than spreading falsehood. That we can repent for the ways in which we have not lived up to our values. That what we witnessed last week wasn’t merely an aberration, it was a reflection of America in 2021. And that if the bodies of those who stormed the Capitol building had been black and brown rather than white, those hallways would have been stained with blood. In the spirit of truth-tellers like Oscar Romero, we need to hear the uncomfortable truths. For only then can we begin to embody hope and unity, rather than division and despair.

That old bullet-riddled manor house in El Salvador had since been converted into an open-air nursery. Gardeners lovingly tended the young coffee plants that would soon be placed deep into the farm’s rich soil. Out of destruction, injustice, and violence, the seeds of new life and growth were literally being sown. May we seek the freedom that surely abides in truth.

Dec 23, 2020

In Good Faith: Christmas is Canceled?

In my December In Good Faith column, I write about the inability to steal or even cancel Christmas. 

Christmas is Canceled?

In a normal year, many of us would be heading over the river and through the woods to
grandmother’s house. But this is not a normal year and we don’t want to inadvertently give grandma COVID. 

In a normal year, we might go Christmas caroling to wish our neighbors a Merry Christmas and demand some figgy pudding in return. But this is not a normal year, singing is a great way to spread the virus, and figgy pudding sounds dreadful. 

In a normal year, the faithful would gather at church on Christmas Eve “joyful and triumphant” to welcome the newborn king. But this is not a normal year and, because we love one another, we’ll be holding services exclusively online. 

Yes, there is much to mourn this year. We miss the joy of being together with friends and loved ones; we miss hugs and cookie swaps and the sharing of holiday cheer; we grieve for the family and civic traditions that won’t happen; Christians miss the sights and sounds of gathering in sacred space to mark this holy time. On the surface of things, it all feels different because it is all different. 

I stumbled upon a rather misleading headline in a British tabloid last week that proclaimed, “Christmas Canceled for Millions.” The subtext was a government decision to implement lockdown measures to combat a new strain of the coronavirus. And while I don’t doubt this will financially and socially impact many in England, the problem is, that’s not how Christmas works. As the classic Dr. Seuss story How the Grinch Stole Christmas reminds us, you can’t actually “steal” or even cancel Christmas. 

And that’s the good news as we prepare to celebrate Christmas in unique ways this year. The trimmings and trappings, the parties and presents fade away, leaving us with the very essence of the celebration: love entering the world in human form. That love may show up in a stable, but it’s up to us to bring that love into our own lives and then share it with the world. Love simply cannot be canceled.

Perhaps that’s the true miracle of Christmas in 2020. Not that everything is perfect — we don’t live in a Hallmark Christmas movie where there is always a predictable and happy ending — but that God sees our struggles and enters into them by walking right alongside us. God takes all that is not ideal in our own lives — the loneliness, the brokenness, the fear, the heartbreak, the grief — and through relationship with us, transforms it into a loving, liberating, life-giving hope.

Wherever and however you celebrate Christmas this year, I pray it will ultimately be about love. Not the sentimental kind, but the transformative kind that triumphs over every fear. The kind that reminds you that God delights in you simply for who you are, even when you’re feeling down or imperfect or overwhelmed. Because it’s not just true that God loves you, it’s the deepest truth there is.

So if there’s one thing to remember this Christmas, it’s that while everything is different, nothing ultimately changes. Merry Christmas, friends, and please do stay safe out there.