Friday, February 27, 2015

Doing and Being

I'm a priest, and I love my job. In fact, I can't imagine myself being anything else other than a priest in the Episcopal church. I get to write, learn, teach, talk, celebrate Eucharist, baptize, marry, listen, laugh, strategize, preach, pray, sing, dream, solve problems, share meals and cups of coffee, and read my favorite book. I love these things; I also do things I don't particularly love to do, but I understand that they are part and parcel to the work.

And while not all of this comes easily, everything I've mentioned here is something that can be done. You can learn to do almost anything, even if it turns out you aren't particularly good at it. We all can't be good at everything, that's why we need each other, I get it. The hardest part of my job though, the one that keeps me up at night, the one that makes me feel like a colossal failure, is not anything that has to do with doing, but rather with being.

In the last two weeks, I've been having a series of really hard conversations. The kind of conversations where there's nothing really to say, nothing to do, nothing to offer. The kind of conversations that are about true injustice in the world, about the death of immediate family members, about ruined hopes, about utterly justified fears. These conversations are raw with emotion, and raw with hard truth. Together, we stare at the ugliness.

I won't tell them it will be all right, because often, it won't be. I won't tell them that when they get to the other side, they'll be stronger, better, transformed, because I don't know that. I won't tell them that "God won't give them more than they can handle" because that's bullshit. First of all, did God really make that happen? Really? and secondly, I've seen people break. That platitude is just not true. In the moment, sitting with them in the church, or on a late night phone call, the only thing I can do is be. More specifically, be with them. Be with them, and promise that right now, the God who suffered knows, and is suffering with them. Small comfort in the face of such big tragedy. But it's all I've got.

Honestly, it sucks. It makes me feel helpless. But I wouldn't be anywhere else.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Life Cycles

In seminary, I took a class called "Spiritual or Religious?" with the ever-fabulous Lisa Kimball. We discussed sociological trends away from organized religion, but also how spirituality and religion is not going away, either. In this class, we talked a lot about what a mature faith looks like in a world increasingly comfortable with no religious affiliation at all.

One of the big take-aways I had from this class was the cyclical role of spiritual crisis for people of faith in and outside of organized religion: faith is tested and honed through life events and questioning. Only by moving through a crisis, by moving through all of the despair and anger and hopelessness can we come to love more deeply, understand more fully, and become adults in our own spirituality. Of course, there's not just one crisis; throughout life a journey of faith is continually a cycle of pain, growth, joy, and lying fallow. Always we begin again, but from a new place.

For the next few weeks (and hopefully longer) the Washington Post will be running a series of columns about this very topic by Laura Sessions Stepp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist. Through a series of interviews with people from all over the Washington area and all walks of life, she'll be presenting a series of Studs Terkel-like articles exploring how the secular intersects with the spiritual, how crises large and small shape a life, and how life becomes infused with meaning, religious or otherwise.

Over the last few weeks, it's been my sincere pleasure to talk with Laura about these topics out of the experiences of my own life. I've found her to be a wonderful listener, funny, and very wise about very many things. Above all, I discovered in our conversations that I was learning quite a bit about myself and my own cycles of faith, which has been sheer gift to me. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who found that to be true.

The first article, about the spiritual path of a tailor on U Street, appeared on Saturday. I hope that you'll read this series and make some time to think about the cycles and turning points in your own life. It will be well worth your time.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Too Afraid for Joy

On Saturday, I was thrown a lovely, lovely baby shower by the ladies in my family and extended church family. It was beautiful. I was surrounded all day by those who love me and are so very excited for Husband and I, and the collective wisdom and generosity of women who have been sisters, daughters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers were palpable to me as we talked and laughed.

Feeling very full but tired, I came home late on Saturday with a carload of things to make our lives with the baby easier, which all went into the nursery. Sunday I worked all day, and when Monday afternoon came, I started trying to make a master thank-you list and setting up the nursery. I managed to make the list, but I couldn't bring myself to open anything that we had been given. Cognitively, I know the clothes and blankets need to be washed, the closet organized, the furniture set-up, the curtains hung. And cognitively, I know that everything is going to be fine, in just a few weeks we'll be bringing home a baby girl, who will need all of these things, and we will need them to be ready, not scattered around the nursery in their boxes. Far better to start the process now and keep working at it over a few weeks than to do it after the baby arrives.

But I realized after having to go in there on Monday, that I've been avoiding the nursery since we designated that room the nursery. I haven't set anything up, I haven't been able to cut the tags off of the cute little outfits that have been accumulating from friends, I haven't been able to commit to a paint color. And on Monday, I realized why.

I'm afraid. Actually, I'm really afraid.

I'm afraid about what happens if I set it all up, and our hearts are broken. I'm afraid of trying to return things that we don't need, knowing that everything can be lost in an instant, or over the cruel progression of weeks or months in the NICU. I'm just plain old scared, even though as I write this I'm getting kicked by a healthy daughter, who at thirty-three weeks is not just fine, but feisty. And this fear that's been ruling this pregnancy, at least since we moved and it got real, has been blocking me from getting excited about becoming a mother and meeting her. Even more than that, this fear has sucked the joy out being where we are now. Everyone around me seems to feel joy for us; but while I wait in fear for the other shoe to drop, I can't feel that joy myself.

Brene Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection that the opposite of joy isn't sadness, but fear. Being afraid of losing what we have closes down the ability to be grateful, right now, for what we do have. And the practice of gratitude, Brown points out, is a prerequisite for joy. The presence of fear drives away gratitude, and as such, fear drives away joy.

What I realized, standing in that nursery full of baby socks in packs and cloth diapers still in the plastic, was that unless I do something now, I'm always going to be too afraid for joy. A healthy delivery means I'll be afraid of measles and SIDS. Reaching a year will mean I'll be afraid of her choking on something that fits inside a paper towel roll, and when she's beyond that, I'll still be afraid of leukemia, car accidents, drowning, school shootings, sports-related concussions, and rare side effects of communicable diseases. There will always be something more to fear.

So, tomorrow, I'm taking a tiny baby step and cutting the tags off of everything, seven weeks early. I'll wash what needs to be washed, assemble the mobile and the bouncer seat, rearrange the furniture, and work on being grateful that we are where we are today.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Taking Issue

"What frustrates me is the way we talk about [the social media issue of the day] from an Episcopal standpoint. Too often, it feels as though we’re taking the trendiest issue, tacking on some vaguely religious (and sometimes outright self-righteous) thoughts, and sending them on their way before turning to the next hot topic. When I read these thoughts, too often I get the feeling that collectively as a church, we’re putting the cart before the horse. We take an issue and add a dash of Jesus or the prophets, when in reality, what should come first is our enduring faith, rooted in love and action, rising up into words. The former is easy, fast, with a quick turnover. The latter is hard, slow, and a life-long commitment."

Thanks again for the folks up at Church House for allowing me to borrow their megaphone. You can get the whole piece here

Monday, February 2, 2015

RiverSmart Homes

Just a brief PSA for those who live in the District: Husband and I just got on the waiting list for the RiverSmart Homes program offered by the city. In a nutshell, the program offsets costs for installing rain barrels, trees, bayscaping, pervious pavers, and rain gardens, up to $1200. It took us five minutes to apply online, and the waiting list is only two to four months right now (the website cautioned up to six.)

We're looking into rain barrels and a rain garden for practical reasons -- namely, our backyard turns into a swamp whenever it rains -- but we're also participating because doing the best we can to preserve our rivers and environment is ultimately an ethical obligation, and one that I act upon as a part of my personal faith. Everything I've been given, everything, even my very breath and the water I drink, is a gift from God. To respond to these gifts with carelessness is to not live in gratitude for them. And living in gratitude is a cousin to living in grace, as they are two sides of the same coin. Both come from Latin's gratus, which means pleasing, or thankful.

And not to be flip, but seriously, the Anacostia River needs all the help it can get. Every little bit matters.