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…