Friday, September 7, 2018

Selfies with Jesus

Among my adventures during my summer sabbatical, I took a trip to the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida. My friend the Rev. Sr. Sarah Randall and I had already spent a couple days splashing about in the Volcano Bay water park and riding the rides at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter when we made our way down I-4 to the ersatz Jerusalem. It was everything I expected it to be — a kind of Holy Land version of Epcot, replete with actors in colorful costumes performing song-and-dance numbers that bore about as much resemblance to the real Holy Land — in Jesus’s time or today — as Epcot France does to the city of Paris. The Holy Land Experience lacked the thrill rides that headlined at Universal, but the Temple in Jerusalem and the public square at Bethany had been as loving rendered with as much careful attention to detail as Hogwarts and Diagon Alley had been at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Holy Land Experience uses this setting to present a series of stage shows based on various Biblical dramas. These change seasonally, from the Passion and Resurrection at Easter to a “God With Us — Redeeming Love” theme when we visited in May. The audience moves from stage to stage — from the Temple courtyard to watch the woman caught in adultery to a side stage to watch the same woman (who is somehow also Mary Magdalene and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman) make the decision to cast aside her life of well-heeled prostitution to follow Jesus; then a walk past the two-story high baptismal fountain to the main auditorium, where Christians cower in a darkly lit catacombs and tell stories of courage in the face of persecution, through the tales of Queen Esther and the Three Young Men and the Fiery Furnace. It’s Sunday-School-meets-Broadway-Musical, with dancing Pharisees and Assyrian belly-dancers, and frequent appearances by Jesus,  predictably played by a tall, handsome man with shoulder length wavy brown hair.  The Holy Land Experience owes as much to Jesus Christ Superstar as the Bible.

All this feels a little ridiculous. OK, a lot ridiculous. How else can you describe the disciples engaging in an acrobatic dance-off with the Pharisees, a la West Side Story, while they waited for Jesus to arrive at the Temple for a day of teaching? And the tellings undeniably perpetrate some of the worst cultural misconceptions around the Biblical narrative, with the Jews as the set-piece villains, European Jesus who is always calm and patient, and Mary Magdalene conflated with the prostitute who washes Jesus feet (and apparently is caught in adultery… talk about lumping all your sexual sins together in one package!)

But as my friend Sister Sarah noted, it also carried the spiritual energy of a place that was prayed in. Scattered around the stages were invitations to prayer — an ersatz Western Wall where prayer requests could be slipped between the “stones” and would be transported to the Holy Land; a wooden cross where thanksgivings for prayers answered could be pinned for all to see; a pocket-sized Garden of Gethsemane where the faithful could kneel at the fock like Jesus and lift up their lamentations to God. It was, Sarah said, “Ignatian theology a la theme park.” Yes, it was tacky. But it was also a place where people offered their heartfelt prayers, and Jesus showed up.

It is easy for those of us with advanced degrees and a passion for historical-critical Bible study to be dismissive of Theme Park Jesus. But the people who bring their whole families, from grandmothers down to the little babies, to the Holy Land Experience instead of spending an extra day at Disney are looking for something — a Jesus they can relate to, a Jesus who, in the words of the Easter hymn, “is no longer bound to ancient years in Palestine.”   My sister’s mother-in-law — a lovely Southern Baptist lady from Georgia — had put her finger on it when she described her encounter during a weekend church-sponsored bus trip: “I was sitting in the Garden of Gethsemane when I looked up, and there was Jesus coming towards me!” she said. “Now, I know it wasn’t really Jesus. But in that moment, it was like Jesus was really coming to see me.”

It is the same longing that sent medieval pilgrims on dangerous journeys to walk the Via Doloroso in Jerusalem on Good Friday, and led them to purchase fragments of the True Cross to bring back home. Modern pilgrims come by minivan and take selfies with Jesus, but they, too, are looking for the God who is with us, a Jesus they can see and touch and high-five.Theologians might call it an incarnational theology, And the stories being told — of a love that is not deterred by the secret shames of our lives, of the courage to speak boldly about one’s faith, of a God whose power is stronger than death — are, indeed, ones we need to hear.

Truthfully, the Holy Land Experience isn’t entirely my cup of tea. The militant insistence on scriptural inerrancy, the casting of European Jesus, and the conflation of the woman caught in adultery with Mary Magdalene trigger my preacher's instincts and make me want to explain to passers-by how they distort the Biblical narrative.  But given the elaborate vestments I don each Sunday to lead worship, I’m not sure I have any right to complain about over-the-top costumes or Broadway-style music swelling behind the actors as we approach the story’s dramatic conclusion. And in truth, maybe we have all come looking for the same thing, whether we are at the Holy Land Experience or the sanctuary at St. Mark’s — the promise that God is with us, a savior who understands us and still loves us, a concrete reminder that we are not alone. As Sarah says, “And Jesus shows up.”

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

I have been thinking a lot about the way the Republican party is debating health care for the sick, food for the poor, access to education, and a host of other government programs. The argument is always based on what produces the most value.  

That seems harmless enough. We want bang for our buck. We want to spend our money well. We want to be good stewards of scarce resources. The problem is, though, that the only kind of value we are talking about is economic value. 

But reducing all our arguments to economic value turns the market into a god. The market values only economic value: it recognizes no other kind. It is very, very good at measuring economic value, and this is what makes it effective in distributing resources -- investments go to companies that produce the most economic value, companies that produce little or no real economic value find their resources are re-directed to places where they will produce greater economic value. If your measure of success is material wealth, then economic value is the only thing you need worry about, and the market can indeed be trusted to meet all our needs. There is no need for any other measure,and no need to limit its ability to  direct resources toward what it values most. 

Most people, however, would argue that there is more to life than economic value. Most of us would agree that economic value does not produce meaning, which although it has little to no economic value, has great spiritual value. Most people would also say that human beings have value beyond their economic value -- that we are worth more than the total of the goods we are able to produce.  We recognize that feeding hungry children and caring for the old and sick has value that has nothing to do with its economic value. Because it produces little economic value, the market says it is a worthless activity and the resources would be better used elsewhere. This is why we do not simply put down the elderly who are no longer able to work, or disabled children who will never hold a job, and why we instinctively recoil from any suggestion that it would be a reasonable thing to do. We know that human beings have spiritual value far in excess of their economic value. And most of us know instinctively that there is deep spiritual value in feeding hungry children and caring for the old and sick, and that not to do so impoverishes us in ways the market cannot measure. 

I am not sure when and how we came to cease speaking about things that have value beyond the economic. I’m not sure when we stopped talking about how good things are merely because they are beautiful, or wise, or speak to us of God’s divine Light. I’m not sure when we started determining whether something was worth doing by its economic value, by what it would add to our bank account or the nation’s GDP. 

What I do know is that if we are to avoid spiritual bankruptcy, we need to reclaim the language of value away from the market, to name the highest good in something other than dollar value. We need to acknowledge that while the market is very useful for distributing resources for economic growth, it is not God, and placing it in God's place is idolatry. Caring for the old and sick and feeding hungry children has little economic value. But our faith traditions say that doing so is doing the very will of God, and is in fact the meaning of life.  Are we willing to sacrifice economic value for the sake of those things which offer meaning and spiritual value? What will determine our greatest good -- the market, or God? 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Walking in Chartres

A year and a half ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Chartres, France, to visit the cathedral there. Chartres was a pilgrimage destination in the 11th century, and in addition to some of the finest medieval glass windows in Europe, the cathedral includes a labyrinth in its nave that is the pattern for modern labyrinths found all over the world. 

A labyrinth looks a little like a maze, except that there is only one path, winding back and forth to the center.  There is no attempt to trick you or lead you down false corridors to dead ends. There are no barriers between one part of the path and another beyond the paving stone laid on the floor: one follows the labyrinth path by choice, so there is no need to prevent walkers from taking short cuts. 

Walking a labyrinth is about making a spiritual journey. The labyrinth at Chartres was originally the end of the pilgrim road: the last steps on a journey of many miles. The winding path is walked slowly, with pauses for prayer and attention paid to each step. It is a form of meditation, a way of stilling heart and mind on the way to an encounter with God.

The labyrinth at Chartres cathedral is available for visitors to walk only on Fridays. The rest of the week, the path laid out in light and dark paving stone is covered by chairs for those who attend worship. Many visitors are probably not even aware it is i there.  In planning our trip to France, I carefully scheduled our visit to Chartres on the day I could walk its winding paths. Labyrinths are one of my favorite ways to pray, and I’ve walked many of them -- most patterned on the labyrinth at Chartres. While I was interested in the history and architecture of the cathedral of Chartres, what put that particular church on my must-see list was the opportunity to pray in the same way as pilgrims have for centuries. 

We arrived fairly early on a gray and chilly day. The interior of the church was barely warmer than the 45F temperatures outside, and the gloominess turned the famous windows into darkly glowing jewels. But the labyrinth inset in the floor beckoned, a warm golden stone patterned with darker brown. I sent my family off to the gift shop, and started walking.  There were a handful of other people in the labyrinth with me, but we were all immersed in the experience. We moved past one another silently, smoothly, patiently waiting when someone ahead of us paused to pray. The silence was broken only by the muted sounds of a handful of visitors talking softly elsewhere in the vast space. 

And then the tour groups started arriving. One busload of tourists and then another poured through the doors, chattering away, looking up into the shadows of the ceiling, pointing eagerly at the stained glass windows. Tour guides waved closed umbrellas and shouted to rally their groups, and began speaking in carrying tones in a variety of languages I don’t speak.  Periodically, a newly-released group would come streaming straight across the labyrinth, talking loudly among themselves, and stopping to take pictures of the rose window over the entrance to the cathedral. I found myself repeatedly having to stop my slow deliberate walk, lest I walk straight into some oblivious tourist. It was clear the guides had not bothered to explain what the labyrinth was, nor suggested that it was sacred ground to be respected. Intent on the architecture, few tourists even noticed the pilgrims in the winding pathways, much less held open that space for silence and prayer. 

It was not exactly the experience I had been looking forward to. And at first, I was angry. After all, I had come thousands of miles for the experience of praying the labyrinth, and my silent devotions were now being rudely interrupted by tourists who clearly knew nothing about this sacred space, and who had not come to the cathedral to pray. I considered quitting, just walking away across the pathways before completing the full circuit. But then I realized if I did so, I would just carry my frustration and resentment with me. I would surrender not only the prayerful encounter with God I had sought in the labyrinth, but my enjoyment of the rest of the cathedral, and indeed the entire day. 

So instead, I began praying for the tourists crossing my path. I prayed for them as travelers in a far away land, for them to have an encounter with God in this ancient place of worship. I found myself praying for the world, for the places where people were unable to feel God’s presence, because they were too busy, or too under attack, or too afraid. I prayed for the sick, the suffering, and those in any kind of trouble. I let each interruption inspire a new prayer, a little random, but powerful. I continued my journey, and in due time, reached the center of the labyrinth.  And then I walked off, and explored the cathedral all those tourists had come to see. 

I’ve been thinking about the morning ever since, because I think perhaps it has something to teach us about what it means to be church in a busy world.  

Most of us who attend church regularly do so because we love the rhythms of worship and the peace that comes with gathering to pray. Music, liturgy, familiar prayers all draw us into an encounter with God. Sometimes that encounter is in sacrament, sometimes in inner stillness, sometimes in the people who gather with us. But regardless of how it happens, worship is about holding open a space where God can be met. 

And we do this in a world full of people who largely do not realize what we are doing. For those who have rarely attended church, the old-fashioned music, unfamiliar language, and odd symbols and gestures may convey little. The reason we are stopped and gathered there may not be immediately evident. And as a result, they may rush on by, barely aware of what we are doing, anxious to accomplish their goals. 

But it is holy and important work to hold that space where encounters with God can happen. 

I wonder how many tourists to Chartres pause to wonder what these strange, silent walkers are doing. Do they ask their guides, perhaps tentatively set foot in the labyrinth themselves? What would happen if there were spiritual guides stationed nearby, to help them experience the labyrinth as something more than a historical artifact? 

I suspect that many of the people who rush by are seeking something, even if they don’t realize or remember what in the busy-ness of the day. For some, the frantic pace of life may be actively crowding out a longing for something deeper: meaning, maybe, or peace, or connection with neighbors, or an encounter with God. That the church continues to hold that holy space where meaning and peace  and neighbors and God can be found may be just what they need to remind them that life is not found in the abundance of possessions, and that no one has wished on their death bed that they had spent more time in the grocery store.

Most of the tourists at Chartres that day missed out on a unique opportunity to experience the cathedral as more than an architectural marvel. God was present in that place. But I might have missed out on it as well, if I had allowed their lack of interest or concern for what I was doing to discourage me. And that’s something the church should remember. It’s not about having full pews or being supported by the culture at large. It doesn’t matter if cashiers acknowledge our religious holidays or school sports schedule games to make them convenient for us. We gather to hold holy space, to make possible encounters with God, and we can do that no matter what the circumstances. We can do that simply by claiming the moment for prayer, even when the silence is broken by the babble of voices, even when we’re interrupted by Japanese tour groups photographing everything in sight. 

God is with us at all times and all places. It is the church’s job to teach us to listen deeply enough to hear the Spirit’s voice through the cacophony, and to hold open holy space so that others might as well. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Mother's Day Prayers of the People

In the Episcopal Church, we offer a series of prayers called Prayers of the People. I occasionally write some for special occasions: I wrote these a couple of years ago for Mother's Day. Feel free to reprint and use them as you like, although credit is appreciated!

Mother’s Day Prayers of the People
God of our mothers, God of Sarah and Hagar, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, on this day set aside in our nation to honor mothers, we give thanks to You for our mothers. We pray for the women who raised us; for all the women in our lives whose care and concern has nurtured and sustained us; and for all whose selfless love has taught us what it means to be a child of God.
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 
We pray for the church, and especially for the mothers who have worked long and often unrecognized to spread the Gospel. We pray today especially for the Mothers’ Unions across Africa who serve the poor in the name of Christ. In the Anglican Cycle of Prayer, we pray for 
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 
We pray for mothers in our own community and around the world who struggle against poverty and injustice; for those who lack basic necessities for themselves and their children; for those who are oppressed and live in fear of violence; for those who dream of a better world and seek to create it for the sake of their children. 
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 
We pray for those for whom this day brings grief: for those who have lost their mothers; for those whose mothers could not, for whatever reason, be true mothers to them; for those who are estranged from their mothers or their children; for mothers whose children have died; and for those who long to be mothers but have not known the joy of children and motherhood. 
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 
In the name of Mary’s son Jesus, who healed the sick and gave sight to the blind, we pray for all those in our parish in need of healing in body, mind, or spirit: 
I invite your prayers of petition at this time. (Please offer your prayers either silently or aloud.)
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 
We pray for the departed, especially for our mothers and grandmothers who have entered into the joy of your kingdom, whom we now name before you: (Please name mothers and grandmothers who have died.)
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 
We offer our thanksgivings for the love we have known from our mothers and from those who have mothered us, and for the love we have felt for our children and those who have been like children to us.  
I invite your other prayers of thanksgiving at this time. (Please offer your prayers either silently or aloud.)
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 

Loving God, who gave Your Son that You might gather all people to yourself as a mother hen gathers her brood, accept our prayers for all who mother and bless them in their calling. And teach all of us, brothers and sisters in Christ, to be Your family, and to love one another as You first loved us. Amen. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Seeking Safety

Where do we look for safety? 

Everywhere we look we find reasons to be afraid. Terrorist attacks in Paris and in California. Mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia. In fact, there have been more than 350 shootings this year where four or more people were killed or injured. And that doesn’t even touch the more run-of-the-mill violence that fills the nightly news. 

It is perfectly understandable that we would seek safety in a frightening world. It is perfectly understandable that we are afraid of those we perceive as being dangerous. It is very human that those dangerous others are always the people we do not understand, the people not like us — refugees, Muslims, immigrants, people of color, the mentally ill, people on the fringes of society, people whose actions and reactions we cannot predict.

But when we give in to this very human reaction, we seek safety in the wrong places. We seek safety in rejection and hatred. We seek safety by turning our backs on the suffering of the world, by demanding that those others be kept at arms length. But it is never enough, because safety cannot be found in fear and rejection.  We build ever higher walls, but we soon discover that we have walled our fear in with us.

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it,” Jesus tells the disciples. It’s a strange thing, but safety cannot be found by seeking safety. Indeed, we fail again and again because we are seeking an assurance of security that this world can never give. In our broken world, there is no where we can go where sin and death cannot touch us.

So what are we to do? There is only one place we can turn: to the One who has overcome sin and death. In dying and rising again to new life, our Savior demonstrated once and for all that God’s power is greater even than death. “In this we are conquerers and more than conquerers through him who loved us,” St. Paul writes. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s not that followers of Jesus do not have to face death. It’s that we do not have to be afraid of it. 

And that’s where we find our safety. Not in systems or plans or walls intended to keep death at bay, but by our willingness to walk through death, if necessary, trusting in the love of God to save us.

And it’s a strange thing, but when we seek safety not in the promise that death cannot touch us, but in the Gospel’s assurance that death cannot overcome us, we are filled with life and love. We discover we now possess abundant life, eternal life. We discover that even though we die, we live in Christ; that even though we lose our life, we have found it. 

People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken,” Jesus warned the disciples in our lectionary reading on the first Sunday of Advent. “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

So walk in love and courage. Welcome the stranger, heal the broken, and set the prisoner free. Do not be afraid. For we have been given tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people.  Our safety is to be found in our Lord Jesus Christ, a safety that can never be taken away.  “My peace I give to you,” Jesus tells the disciples on the night before he is crucified. “My peace I leave with you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Our safety is found in the Lord. 


Monday, February 2, 2015

I Love My Job

I just want to state, for the record, that I have the best job in the world.

It seems I can’t go a week without some contact on social media sharing yet another article explaining why being an ordained minister is such a difficult job. And to be fair, there are lots of reasons pastoring a church is not for the faint-hearted. Churches are full of broken, hurting people, and it’s the clergy’s job to minister to them and to help bear their burdens -- and some of those burdens are doozies.

Yes, it can be very tiring. And sometimes lonely. And frustrating. Our failures tend to be very public, and our successes private. There’s constant exposure to the harshest realities of life, and the job refuses to stay within tidy boundaries.

All of this is true. But it’s true for a lot of people in a lot of fields. I don’t suppose my job is really that much harder than that of teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers and social workers, who deal with many of the same challenges, often with less respect. And my job doesn’t include many of the less pleasant aspects of theirs -- I am hardly ever expected to clean up vomit, for example.

Yes, sometimes I have to deal with someone who’s angry about a change I’ve made or something I’ve said. I have to deal with people who make it personal, and who may threaten my job if I don’t give them what they want. But sitting in the pews are retail clerks and waitresses who have had to bear the brunt of a customer’s wrath over something that wasn’t their fault -- and who probably got stiffed on a commission or a tip to boot.

Yes, I’ve been out until 2 a.m. after spending hours in the emergency room with a desperately ill parishioner, and driven home exhausted. But the guy who does tech support for the multinational firm was up just as late trying to solve a critical customer problem, and he’ll probably end up doing it again tomorrow night.

Yes, I am sometimes the only person in the world entrusted with hurting, broken people’s deepest griefs and greatest burdens. And yes, I worry about them, and I carry those burdens alone, because to share them would be to violate the precious trust they’ve placed in me. But the psychologist, the addiction counselor, and the social worker in the congregation know just as many secrets and are just as much alone.

Yes, I am regularly called upon to sit with the dying and comfort the grieving. But I almost never do it alone. I am joined by hospice workers, doctors, nurses, and funeral home directors who are kind and compassionate and who see to the mundane details of death with grace and patience. After the funeral, I will turn my attention to planning the next week’s baptism or getting ready for a preschool celebration, while those I ministered alongside meet another grieving family and start the process all over again.

Yes, sometimes my sermons flop, and I spend all week stewing over what I should have said instead. But that’s nothing compared to the politician or local town official who says something ill-considered and is castigated in the media and the local coffee shop all week, or the middle-manager who blows the big presentation and loses the company’s most important client.

And those are just the hard parts of my job. There are also days when I’m called to the hospital to hold a newborn baby. I get to be part of the happiest moments in people’s lives, presiding at weddings and baptisms. There are days when I rock the sermon, and people pause as they walk out the door to shake my hand and say, “Great sermon! Thank you! ”

I get invited to lunch and to tea, and small children offer to let me hold their favorite stuffed animals or ask to sit on my lap. Little old ladies hug me and tell me how very, very happy they are that I am part of their church. People bake me banana bread and mince pies, and send home cookies from coffee hour for my teenage children.

I preside at the Eucharist week after week, welcoming God and lifting up the deepest longings of the people gathered around the Table. I reassure the penitent of God’s forgiveness, the lost of God’s love for them, and the frightened of God’s protection and care. I get to pray for those in need, and hear the stories of healing and hope that so often follow.

I tell stories of miraculous rescue, long-awaited return, and never-ending love to small children and harried parents and weary elders. I help people wrestling with hard truths and difficult realities to deepen their understanding and come to know God better. Every now and then, the Holy Spirit uses me for healing and wholeness and comfort and strength for others in ways that leave me gasping with gratitude and awe.

I have the best job in the world. I am so unbelievably blessed to have been called to this work. I cannot express my gratitude to have the opportunity day after day to be part of what God is doing in all these places, the beautiful and the ugly, the hard and the holy.

Yes, sometimes I get tired and depressed and frustrated. I’m only human, after all, and sometimes the hard things are very hard indeed. Sometimes the burdens are very heavy. But that’s true for all of us, which is probably why St. Paul once wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I try to remember the advice of Colossians: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”

There is so very much to be thankful for, and I hope all of us blessed to be pastors and priests will try to remember that even on -- or maybe especially on -- the days when it’s hard.

Monday, January 26, 2015


A couple years ago, I realized that I probably have Attention Deficit Disorder. 

I was reading up on ADD because I have several friends diagnosed with it, and I was startled by how much we had in common. I began to wonder what, exactly, the difference was between having ADD and not having ADD. The more I read, the more I realized how much I fit the descriptions I was reading. 

My mother has told me for years that when I was in fifth and sixth grade, my teachers regularly brought up in parent-teacher conferences my inability to pay attention in class. My mother was confused by this, because I was a straight-A student, and she couldn’t figure out how I could be getting good grades if I wasn’t paying attention. In those days, ADD was only just starting to be diagnosed, and mostly it was diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in boys. I did not fit the profile for ADHD, since I was not disruptive in class and I was intelligent enough that whatever I was getting in class was enough for me to do well in school. But I spent many hours in class reading a book under my desk, where I would lose myself so thoroughly that the entire class would go to lunch and I wouldn’t realize it, something brain scientists call hyper focus.  Throughout my teens, my mother called me the absent-minded professor, because while I was a brilliant student I was notorious for losing things and leaving things behind. She complained that I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached. And when I worked at Sears during high school, I would regularly go to the stock room looking for something for a customer, get distracted on the way, and forget why I was there. I joked with my colleagues that I was getting senile at the ripe old age of 17. 

All of which is pretty much textbook for girls with ADD.  But I’ve never confirmed it with a diagnosis, mostly because a diagnosis requires that all of this interfere with my life, that it be a disorder. And for me, at least, it’s just how I operate in the world. 

As it turns out, I come from a long line of people with attention issues. My grandfather’s inability to sit still was legendary, and well into his 80s he was a familiar sight pacing the driveway or walking the neighborhood. My mother looks back on her own childhood (and adulthood), and sees the same behaviors and challenges that I have, and even more so in her brother. All of which means that I was surrounded with people who knew how to cope, and could teach me all the ways of managing distractibility that many people get from professional counselors. 

It’s true that I couldn’t live without checklists and routines, and sometimes I get distracted on the way to write something on my to-do list, and whatever it is never gets done. It’s true that I still have to look for my keys every time I go out the door, something that drives my husband nuts, and the altar guild finds my prayer book in a different place each week after worship.  But it’s also true that none of that particularly bothers me, although I still feel bad about the poor lady I left standing in the aisle at Sears for over 20 minutes while I didn’t look for the bra she asked me to find two decades ago. 

In fact, the only downside to not having a diagnosis is that I still find myself reluctant to claim what I need to function at my best. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve come to realize that some people actually enjoy the presentations at clergy conference and diocesan convention.  There are people out there who look forward to spending hours sitting with other people in a room and learning about what’s going on in the diocese, or the newest ideas in self-care, or whatever this year’s day-long program is about.  I’ve always assumed that everyone was suffering the way I was, sitting and listening in a ballroom or church sanctuary, growing ever more anxious and irritable and coming home exhausted.

And then this year, after Diocesan Convention, I had an epiphany. It was the first time in years I did not have a task that required me to spend some time away from the convention floor, and it was held in a church that didn’t really have enough space for everyone who attended. I arrived early to secure a seat, and found myself crammed into the inner side of a pew, shoulder to shoulder with the four people between me and the aisle. And so I sat still, not wanting to disturb the others sharing my pew, and grew more and more frustrated and desperate for the whole thing to be over.  

It was only after the last prayer was said and I chatted with the two members of my church who serve as representatives to convention that I realized my frustration was not shared. Around me everyone was talking about how wonderful the worship was, how interesting the presentations, and generally, how much they had enjoyed convention. My experience had been so very different! By the time Eucharist came around, I just wanted it to be over; by lunchtime,  I was so tired I almost cried when I couldn’t find a seat or figure out where my compatriots had gone to in their quest for a place to sit. Far from buoyed up by a  wonderful day and excited about the church’s future, I was snarky and irritable. 

Listening to our wonderful senior warden talk about how much she had learned and how glad she was that she was to be the rep this year,  I realized that maybe my attention issues sometimes interfere with my life after all.  Maybe our rep is the one who is unusual, and everyone else in that room was just as cranky as I was. But there’s a strong chance that it really is just me -- or at least, just me and all the other ADD folks in the room. And maybe I have lots of company because, well, I have lots of company, but we might not be the majority. 

Looking back, I also realized that I enjoyed clergy conference and clergy day more this past year, in part because on both occasions I hadn’t made an effort to sit still in the room for the entire thing. At clergy conference, when we broke up into small groups, I blew the off the workshop on writing to go and actually write. At clergy day, when they came to the hour dedicated to providing information about a health plan I’m not on and don’t ever anticipate using, I went off and took a lovely walk with a clergy colleague in the same situation. 

In other words, when I gave up trying to be a good girl who sits still and pays attention in class, everything got better -- my experience, my mood, and in all likelihood, how much people enjoyed sitting with me at lunch. 

But I feel guilty skipping out on stuff, even when my presence offers no particular value. I feel self-conscious when I work on an embroidery project while listening to a presentation, knowing many people see it as a sign I’m not paying attention. Without an official diagnosis, I’m reluctant to say I have ADD, which might make it easier for people to understand why I do that stuff. But I’m beginning to think I’m not doing anyone any favors, since forcing myself to be the good and attentive person I think I should be makes me rather unpleasant company. Especially since now that I think about it, it doesn’t seem to have that effect on everybody.

I wonder if I should, perhaps, consult a professional and see if I qualify for a diagnosis. But I’m not sure what difference it will make. I don’t really want to take medications, and mostly I do just fine. I have a pretty impressive collection of coping mechanisms and organizing strategies, and I’m already surrounded by people who are fully aware that if it looks like I’ve forgotten something, I probably have, and who cheerfully offer reminders. I don’t know if it matters if I have ADD or if I’m just one of a pretty large gorup of people who have a limited capacity to sit still and listen. I think perhaps all I need to do is give myself permission to need regular breaks and to find ways to contribute that don’t require me to sit around a table for more than three hours. 

Maybe, in other words, I’m not disordered at all. In fact, maybe none of us is disordered -- we’re just different. Some of us love chaos and change, and others value order and stability. Some of us thrive in settings where there are constant distractions, and others are much more productive when allowed to stay focused on a single task until its completed. Maybe the problem isn’t having a disorder, so much as it is the way the world tends to insist that there is only one way to be successful. Maybe I don’t need a diagnosis, just a willingness to acknowledge my weaknesses and stop feeling guilty about the need to make adjustments because of them. 

The world would be a better place if we all did that, in fact. As St. Paul says, there are many gifts, and the hand cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you.”  A couple years ago, I asked an adult parishioner with autism to be cantor for the Easter Vigil. The vigil is a service we do only once a year, so the proper order isn’t ingrained in me like Sunday morning Eucharist, and I have a tendency to skip collects or forget that we were going to recite a psalm after an energetic skit telling the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.  But order is very important to Michael, so that year he took on the role of reminding me what came next as the vigil progressed from story to story. The result was a lively, creative service that also moved in an orderly fashion, and it was far more wonderful than it would have been if it had been left to just one of us. 

Maybe my attention issues are worse then most people’s, or maybe not. Either way, I know how to adapt, and I’m going to work on feeling less guilty when I do so. I hope you’ll do the same thing, because all of us are made in the image of God, and we are all so much more than the sum of our weaknesses. I may not be the person you want organizing rehearsals, sending out reminders, and labeling costumes as the church school prepares for the Christmas Pageant, but I am totally the person you want in charge of a half dozen sugar-hyped “sheep” and a Mary talking nonstop in excitement, while Joseph’s mom is on the phone to tell you that he has a fever of 102F and can’t come. Chaos is my natural element, and that can be a good thing. 

Now, if I could just quit losing my car keys…