Coffee, Ashes and Holy Melt Downs

I started today with a melt-down worthy of a toddler. It involved stomping of feet, throwing shoes and finally a good, sobbing cry. There was really nothing wrong, save an issue with my coffee and general tiredness. My beloved deserves a medal. It was quite a start to a Holy Lent.

After my melt down I drove to work and met my dear co-worker and we stood on the 20 degree Georgia sidewalk for about an hour and half, mostly waving at folks and occasionally imposing ashes with the familiar words “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Aside from not bringing gloves and wearing cotton instead of wool socks, it was a lovely morning. I’m not a fan of Ashes 2 Go, but I deeply appreciated the opportunity to be a visible presence of the church out on the street (literally right in front of our church doors). And I had a couple of good conversations with folks about what Lent is all about, the symbolism of the ash, where it comes from and what we’re doing in this holy season. A couple of folks asked about fasting for Lent and lenten disciplines.

I struggle with Lenten disciplines. Often it feels like a holy diet, or even worse, a new, New Year’s Resolution. So for a long time I’ve given up giving things up and tried to take things on. But this year, for reasons that are as layered as my hair, I’m taking on the fast aspect. I’m giving up sugar and wine (pray for my beloved. The season may be long.) Why I’m giving up sugar and wine has to do with my choice last Easter, when I went back to being a vegetarian. Since then I’ve gotten a little obsessed with eating really good food. So in a weird way, giving up sugar is a way of taking on more good eating, more mindfulness about what I put in this old body of mine. But that’s me. What about you? What are you doing? What are you not doing? What are you giving up? What are you taking on?

If you’re looking for a way into a Holy Lent, here are some ideas. There are, obviously, millions more.

1. Write a letter. A real letter, in your own messy handwriting. A friend of mine did one a day last year for Lent. A letter a day for 40 days. I was the recipient of one of his letters. I can’t begin to tell you how much it meant to me.

2. Pray an Office. Morning Prayer, Noonday, or Evening Prayer. Say Compline once you’re tucked into your bed. If you’re reading it on your own, let the cat say the responses. It works, trust me.

3. Protest. Speak out against injustice. This is my cause.

4. Pray for someone who pisses you off. Pray whatever you want–I won’t tell you how to pray. I will offer that the prayer is less about changing the person and more about reorienting yourself. (You should know that last note was to remind myself of that tidbit more than anything else.)

5. Light a candle.

6. Go to church. Stay for coffee hour. Speak to someone you don’t know.

7. Read a good book. This is what I’m reading. And this. And this. Oh and this one. I’m super-excited about this one. I just heard her speak, and whoa. 

8. Make a meal with food already in your pantry. And in a perfect world, donate the money you would have spent on groceries or dinner out to a charity or organization you care about.

9. Recycle.

10. Reinvent Eden. I heard Amy Jill Levine speak last week and she said every time we stand naked before a mirror, we are reminded that we are made in the image and likeness of God (and that God has a good sense of humor!). And that every time we stand naked in front of another, without shame, we reinvent or recall or reclaim Eden. I love that. (Safe Church guidelines encourage me to point out the obvious that reinventing Eden should be done in your home, with consenting adults, in private.)

11. Ask for forgiveness or apologize. If you need to do it, it’ll make life better.

12. Offer forgiveness to someone who doesn’t deserve it. If you can safely forgive someone, it may not change them, but it’ll likely change you.

13. Pray for the world. Pray for peace.

14. Leave the dishes in the sink. Practice being okay with imperfection.

15. Hold a baby. Remember that you were once that small and precious and fragile. And so was every other person. And that, in a lot of ways, we are still every bit that small and fragile and precious.

Blessings on the journey.

Healing and Prayers, Comfort and Discomfort

One of the things I struggle with in sermon writing is navigating the healing stories. Don’t get me wrong. I love the stories. They fill me with hope and faith. But mostly they bring out my questions and my questioning. And I’m okay with that most days. One of the things I like best about my faith is that it allows me to question, to wonder, and to struggle with the text and with God.

But translating that from my own personal wrestling, to preaching a message to a congregation is hard for me. And a year at of working with sick and sometimes dying children didn’t exactly help that. I have been fortunate to witness the miraculous. But I’ve also been witness to sorrow that is beyond words, ache that knows no soothing, brokenness that shows no sign of repair. I trust in the bigger picture of God, that in God’s good time will, as Julian reminded us, all will be well. Yet in the rawness of sorrow and illness and death, it’s often hard to reconcile the healing Jesus with the realities of the world. Add to it that whole pesky prayer thing. What happens when I pray and my prayer seems to go unanswered, when despite all I believe, what it feels like is there’s no one on the other end of the line?

The Bible has wonderful accounts of how Jesus shows up and heals some people. I’m left wondering about the people he couldn’t get to and the people who were standing on the wrong side of the sea and the people (like us) who seem, at least at first glance, to be standing on the wrong side of time.

Where is God in the most broken of places? Where is God when we feel most alone? I don’t have it all neatly wrapped up in a bow. I don’t have a perfect answer for this post. But I know it’s a place where my deep discomfort is moving me towards a different and new perspective.

In his book Night, Elie Wiesel, professor, author, political activist and former prisoner at Auschwitz writes of a time when they were forced to watch a child being put to death, hanging from the gallows. Someone asked:

“Where is God now?”

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .”

At my core, I fiercely believe that God is with us in the midst of our suffering, our sorrows, even when it seems impossible, even when it seems we are alone. And I believe that part of how we come to know God is with us is through the ministrations of other sojourners who travel this earth with us. The power of prayer is not that it fixes everything–it’s that it changes relationships–our relationship with God, our relationships with each other.

So what do you think? Where’s God in suffering? Where’s God in prayer? Do you believe in miracles? Does God still intercede, jumping around like Jesus did, healing the lame, the blind and raising the dead? I’m curious to know what you think.

A final thought: the Senior Warden at my last parish introduced me to this. It resonated with me at such a deep level. Part of it is listed below.

From A Year of Days with the Book of Common Prayer by Bishop Edmond Browning:

If my prayers do not turn to these things into the releases and healings for which I long, does that mean they’ve failed? Does it mean I didn’t pray right? Didn’t pray hard enough? Only if the narrow test of immediate historical change is the only test of prayer’s efficacy. If the only useful prayer is a prayer that works right here and right now, in just the way I want it to work, we’re in trouble. Prayer is not a way to get around human sorrow, a special incantation that produces a desired result God would otherwise withhold from us. It is a thread of holy energy that binds us together. It enables the communion of my soul with the souls of others, whether I know them or not. “I could feel myself lifted by all the prayers,” someone will often tell me after a serious illness. Get enough of these holy threads wrapped around a person, and she will feel them, quite apart from the issue of whether or not she gets what she wants.


Red Moons and Executions

The lights were bright. But not in the cheerful, welcoming Christmas way. Nor were they the holy, hopeful, Advent-waiting light. They were the jarring lights, that welcome complete exposure and clarity. But I did not stay in the light for long.

I saw a small group of people in the darkness, and I somehow intuited that I was supposed to be with them. Pulling through the open gates, into the harsh, bright lights, I handed my Driver’s License over to the officer and asked “can I go stand with them?”. “Are you here to protest?” he asked. I hesitated. I was there for that, to protest the execution of a man who killed a police officer. And as I looked into the face of the officer holding the card containing all my most personal information: name, address, height, weight, eye colour, I was not afraid. I was, however, worried he might be offended, worried he might roll his eyes at me, worried he might engage with me in a debate about how police are treated in this day and age. “Yes,” I said. And he, very politely, invited me to turn left. Three more officers, and two police dogs welcomed me into tree filled field.

“Get all your belongings before you leave,” the officer said. I locked my car and felt a breath of relief when I noticed that another clergy friend was also exiting his car. I greeted him and together we waited as the dogs sniffed his car for drugs and bombs. And together we walked to a cleared corral, sectioned off just for us. There I met a couple of other clergy, some activists who have long been attending these executions, one of W’s lawyers and some of W’s family and closest friends. It seems an extra insult to injury that the family must wait outside, with port-a-potties and the whims of the elements, while they wait for word that their beloved son/brother/uncle/friend has died.

I gathered with the people I knew. We made small talk. We held signs that no one else saw. The one I wanted “Thou shall not kill” was already being carried, so I took “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. One man never let go of his sign proclaiming that 144 people executed by the state were later found to be innocent. In total, there were about 20 or 25 of us, I think. I’ve never been too good at counting people. The Bishop of the Diocese where I currently serve made the comment “If you want to know what Calvary was like, you can imagine it was a lot like this.” His comment stuck with me throughout the night. It made sense. We were here, a few that, for whatever reason, needed to be there. The rest of the world was still spinning, doing things that needed to be done. And while the sky moved from dusk to dark, the moon began to rise and we waited.

In Jerusalem, etched into some of the ancient stones, ones that we imagine date back to the time of the crucifixions, back to the time of Jesus, there are markings. Imagine tic-tac-toe boards, only bigger. I’m told that the soldiers used these to pass the time while waiting for the crucified to die. On Good Friday, whenever I hear “they cast lots for his clothes,” my mind instantly goes to those games. Dice games, played on the streets, passing time, waiting for the human body to die, the heart to stop beating, because the government had decided death will somehow keep the rest of us alive. While the government kills, we cast lots and play dice and make small talk.

I would write of my encounters with his family. But they are not my stories to share. But if you’re taking time to read this (thank you!), I hope you know that W has a family. And they are wonderful. Funny and bright, kind and thoughtful. And they love W. And from all I can tell, W loves them too. A lot.

We waited, through 3 appeals, all denied. The moon continued to rise, and it went from hazy to pink to red. A harvest moon? A blood moon? And then it was back in its rightful spot, and traditional colour once again. Word finally came. The State had permission and clearance to kill W. It took 17 minutes for the poison to kill him. Seventeen minutes. Seventeen minutes of poison moving through his body, seventeen minutes of what? We were told, and suddenly there we were, at the foot of the cross, looking at the face of Mary, looking at the Magdalene, looking at the women who waited. Grief is that universal pain that stabs the heart the same today as it did back then. There is no cure for it, save maybe time and love.

And then it was over. And we got in our cars and left the empty field. Back to our lives. I got home and couldn’t get warm. My Chicago blood has thinned, five hours of standing in the December cold is a lot. I crawled in bed and shivered. “Seventeen minutes” I whispered my sleeping beloved, who woke up and held me as I struggled to get warm. “Seventeen minutes.” There has to be another way.

Of Churches and Chapels, Of Priests and Chaplains

The truth, if I’m honest, is that I went to work at the hospital kicking and screaming (or at least kicking and crying). It began as a journey of necessity, a means to an end, a way to start the life that I knew was waiting for me. Yet how quickly it morphed into a pilgrimage of discovery about who I am and who God is and how God continues to create, restore and redeem in the strangest and most wonderful of places. 

And again, if I’m truthful, I left my work as a chaplain in a Level 1 Pediatric Trauma Center with teary eyes and a full heart. I loved my work. God knows I loved the people I worked with–they made me laugh, taught me the art of walking slowly, made me work harder than I’ve ever worked, and pushed me in the most profound and gentle ways. 

I struggled at the hospital in two distinct ways.

The first was the leaving of the church. My identity was (and can still be) so wrapped up in the little strip of white wrapped around my neck. Who am I if not a parish priest? (Pssst: the answer? Beloved child of God…but it took me awhile to get that one.) The journey to integrate both parish priest and Emergency Department chaplain was one that I will forever treasure and one that has made an immense difference on my ability to do both jobs.

The second was the on-call shifts. Y’all–I’m just too old. Weekday on call shifts last 28 hours. Of those 28 hours, 16 are alone. In those 16 hours you babysit the whole hospital, the only chaplain in the place. My last super busy on-call had me on my feet baptizing the dying, consoling the bereaved, praying for the coding, and bringing water to people who couldn’t understand the language the doctor was speaking. I was up until 5:17AM and I remember struggling to keep my eyes open.

But more than the tiredness, I found those 16 hours to be so lonely. There were times it was better–dinner with a Child Life Specialist, praying with the Environmental Services crew, there were moments when I knew I wasn’t alone. But overall, I’ll remember it as loneliness. 

But oh, how I learned from the loneliness. In those hours, I learned to live with the anxiety of not knowing, the anxiety of loneliness itself and the anxiety of walking into a place not knowing what’s to come, but trusting that with God’s help (and the humans nearby), I will be able to bring my gifts to bear. And those long, lonely nights gave me one other gift. They taught me that no matter how long the night, morning always comes, that the dark night, the lonely night always comes to an end–usually with coffee, conversation and joyful laughter.

When I took my new job, returning to the world that is church, I put my announcement on Facebook. And someone quite earnestly wrote something about how I was a good pastor and not to worry, I’d get the hang of ministry again once I got back in the saddle. It was a honest attempt to congratulate me and I appreciate it. 

But what I can now admit, is that I came into hospital chaplaincy assuming that hospital chaplains are folks who couldn’t cut it in the church. That, I now know with perfect clarity, is a fallacy. The work I did as a hospital chaplain is some of the most important ministry work I will ever do. Learning to stop doing, to stop controlling, to stop expecting and to simple be, to simply love, to simply listen–these are the hallmarks of chaplaincy ministry. And these are the hallmarks I pray I take with me to parish ministry. Because this is what people want and need. Not the busy. Not the reports. Not the ASA. People want and need relationship–with God, with each other. 

This morning I gathered with five women from my new parish. We prayed, we laughed, we anointed with oil, we laid hands, we broke bread, we shared wine. With stories that are theirs and not mine to share, I felt my eyes well with tears at the love they had to share, the ways their hearts, brimful with love, had broken and been mended, and sometimes were breaking again a new, as the human heart is apt to do. I saw and heard and felt the beauty with which they held each other up, reminding me once again that the morning always comes. 

I joined my prayers with theirs. I lifted my joys and sorrows with theirs. And for a moment, I heard with absolute clarity that still small voice that is God. That still small voice, making itself abundantly known in this small community of faithful women. And in that moment I added one more prayer, one of thanks, for my ability to hear, to stop, to pray, to embody compassion and to listen–gifts I’ve always had with me, but gifts that having been honed in the fire of the hospital, gifts that are undeniably better after my year sojourn as a chaplain. It was a year I didn’t know I needed, a year that, by grace, was given to me. 

Starbucks and Day Light Savings

Preface: I recognize this is sort of a pitiful post. It’s all about Starbucks and probably reads more like an advertisement than a blog entry. But hey–the blog title is The Caffeinated Priest, so, dear reader, surely you expect an occasional rant about my favorite addiction, right? Okay. Read on. 

Starbucks, for better or worse, is a constant in my life. I was in a Starbucks last week, not my usual one, and I ran into a friend from a Diocesan committee. We were chatting and she was asking what I was doing in the neighborhood and as I was explaining, I heard myself say “I’m not usually a parishioner at this Starbucks.” My worlds collide sometimes more than others.

Yesterday I walked to work and stopped in, as I often do on Sunday mornings, to my favorite Starbucks in all of Chicago. It’s right around the corner from my house and Sara, the manager, and her baristas run a great shop. Say what you will about the quality of Starbuck’s coffee and the fact that I’m supporting a big-box coffee shop–what I love about Starbucks is this particular shop. I’m clear that I pay for the Starbuck’s experience as much as the coffee. I love that for a few minutes of my day there are people who know me, are kind to me and who give me a great cup of coffee, just the way I like it.

Anyway….yesterday was, as I’m sure you know, Daylight Savings Time, the dreaded Spring Forward. After a long but wonderful working weekend with no day off, and on less than 4 hours sleep, I trudged into my favorite Starbucks. Fully decked out in my Sunday morning best, bright white collar wrapped around my neck, I walked up to the counter and looked at all three baristas and said: “Don’t you just HATE this day?”. Their eyes all got really big. There was this big, long, awkward pause. And then I got it. “No! No!” I cried, “not Sunday. Love Sunday. Don’t you hate Daylight Savings Time and that horrid leap forward?”. “Oh” they said as they collectively began to breathe again. (Today they tell me that they told the story all day long of the priest who, at first pass, appeared to hate Sunday mornings.)

We’re half way through Lent and boy do I need a lot of coffee these days. I’m grateful for my local baristas.

The Oscars and Canned Tomatoes

Last night I went to an Oscar party at the home of my friends, Amanda and John. It’s hard to believe I’ve known them for about 6 years–time flies. Amanda & I met in a writing class and we’ve traveled a lot of road together. She had just started a new job when we met–two weeks ago she began a new dream job that she loves. I was in the process of job hunting when we met and was interviewed and hired at St. Peter’s. Amanda and John were in the congregation on my first Sunday there. Amanda & I have been Weight Watchers buddies for years (where’s she’s a rock-start and I’m a tortoise). I preached at their wedding…I could go on. I feel unbelievably lucky/blessed/insert-over-used-word-here to have both Amanda and John in my life.

If the back story isn’t enough to explain how much I love these people, here’s another reason why: last night her house was filled with about 20 people. She had food for days, which she created with a joy and ease I simultaneously covet and admire. I walked in and put my stuff down, poured a cocktail glass of fizzy water (damn Lenten discipline) and was just about to sit down when Amanda said, with such excitement “come here! I’ve got something to show you!” She walked me to the foyer, where she keeps a homemade/makeshift cabinet, the contents hidden by black curtain. She pulled the curtain back: “Would you look at this!?” she pointed to 8 yellow cans of 24 ounce organic diced tomatoes. “79 cents on sale this week at Mariano’s.” “No way” I said. “Way. I knew you’d want to know.”

There is something inherently important and sacred about being known. We all seek it, I think–being known, being loved, being recognized. I remember when I got out of college, I moved to a small, horrific little town in Georgia where I had a dreadful job and was dating someone who was wrong for me on so many levels. It was a terrible time in my life. And I would come home and watch the TV show Friends. These 6 people would sit in a coffee shop all day long and loved each other despite of, or perhaps, because of their flaws and quirks. And I felt so damn lonely. Nobody knew me. And those who did were so far away. Things would get better (somehow, they almost always do, as life tends to be somewhat cyclical). But I remember, with clarity, craving friends who loved me and all my quirks and flaws (of which there are so many!). 

Many, many years later, when I moved to Chicago, while I had a great job and a great love, I still had that same overwhelming sense of being unknown, and far away from people who loved me. And then I met Amanda and John (and Chris and Stacy too, but this is a post about Amanda and canned tomatoes). And things began to change. I began to find my footing.

The power of being known and being loved is just that–power, powerful. Sometimes it’s the littlest of things–like a crazy good sale on canned tomatoes–that points it out. Other times is something deeper, something more. So today I find myself thankful for those places where, unexpected and delightful life dances into realms of longing, for friendship and love that abides, that gives life, that allows the creative to create.

I still watch re-runs of Friends. Central Perk was a great place. But as for me, I’ll take Oscar parties and canned tomatoes.

PS: This is Amanda and me. I won the Oscar party prize (the 2011 Best Film) by having the highest score on the “guess the winner” game Amanda and John had set up for us.  I won it because John gave me a copy of Entertainment Weekly, which featured the predicted winners. I hadn’t even heard of 3/4ths of the movies. And I have yet to see the King’s Speech. But I won–thanks John!

Putting Whitney on the Prayer List

My friend and fellow priest called this afternoon. We talk enough on the phone that the simple pleasantries like “hello” and “how are you?” sometimes get bypassed for a more direct greeting. At least, that was the case today, when I saw her name flash on my phone. I picked up the phone and said: “I’m putting Whitney on the Prayer List.” She laughed (I knew she would) then replied “And that is just one more way our parishes are so very different” (she’s right). 

I don’t usually put celebs on the prayer list. (In retrospect perhaps we should’ve put Kim Kardashian on the prayers for those preparing for marriage, but I digress).  But I put Whitney on the prayers for the deceased. And not as a joke, or to be cute. But because she was/is an icon. Living in the heart of Boystown, where no one glances twice at a man dressed like a woman or two boys walking the street holding hands, it’s easy to forget that life for the queer community has not always been so welcoming or kind.

As we walked out of Bible study today, one of my parishioners told me of his grief over the loss of Houston. In the cruel world of high school, in the new stages of knowing what it means to be different, to not fit in, Whitney’s voice sang out a language, a song that spoke to him. Other parishioners have told me how she was part of their coming out, how they would sing to her music and it was one place to be safe about who they were.

So we’ll pray for Whitney. And each other. And we’ll keep singing.

Snow and Santa

How the heck did this Southern girl end up in Chicago? Don’t get me wrong. I love this city, but I’m sitting by my window, trying to crank out a sermon, and my coffee has gone cold because the outside air is effecting the temperature inside. Oh well. At least the radiators are working.

Tomorrow I will don a Santa hat and beard (don’t tell the Advent Police) and run my first 5K in over a decade in the Santa Hustle. I’m really excited, a little nervous about my ability to finish, delighted that 4 of my friends are also running and terrified about the fact that there will be snow falling as I run by the lake in this Windy City.

I’ve been using the C25K (Couch to 5K) app on my iPhone. A better app has never been created. I love, love, love it. I’ve gone from being able to run for 2 minutes to being able to run 25 in less than 6 weeks. Amazing. I never thought I’d get there again.

It seems appropriate that it falls in Advent–a time of rebirth, of expectation, the new liturgical year, for those of us who do liturgical cycles. I asked my congregation last week (in my sermon) what they were waiting for, watching for, expecting. I’ve been sitting with the question myself–still no real answer. Maybe there doesn’t have to be something. I mean, it’s good, I suppose, just to learn to wait. Especially for me (I’m a terrible wait-er). In the mean time, there are sermons to write and recipes to make (mango black beans and rice is simmering on the stove. Moroccan chicken a little bit later!) and Presiding Bishops to dine with later tonight (just me and the rest of the clergy of the Diocese). 

At any rate, it’s good to be writing a bit. It’s good to have day off. And it’s good, ready or not, for Santa hats in the snow!

Jesus and Puffy Cheeks

We don’t have a ton of kids at my church. Two who are regular. A few more (several babies!!) who come every couple of weeks. But one regular 5-year-old Sunday School participant, who, weekly, gets a lesson, a lot of stories and always arts and crafts (which, when I’m teaching, usually means Play-dough and Crayons).

Today we had a ball. We told the story of the disciples, hidden away and scared in the upper room, and Jesus coming and breathing on them and saying “Peace.” The story went something like this:

Me: The disciples were very
5-Year-old: SCARED!
Me: But then someone came to see them. Who was it?
5-Year-old: Jesus.
Me: And what did Jesus do?
5-Year-old: [here you have to imagine the 5-Year-old and me both blowing with very exaggerated, very full, very puffy cheeks].
Me: And what did Jesus say to them?
5-Year-old: Peace be with you!
Me: And then were they still scared?
5-Year-old: No!

So we went into the church where the altar guild, the deacons, and the flower guild were all working and told the story to each of them. Then we found the treasurer and the Senior warden and told them. And then to the 5-Year-old’s mom. And now I’m telling you. It was great fun. So if you’re feeling scared and aren’t sure what to do, just imagine Jesus, with big, puffy cheeks, blowing on you and saying Peace!

Here are some pictures of my play-dough renditions of the scene. Jesus is orange, in case you’re wondering.