Friday, November 10, 2017

Christmas without stuff

Yes, it's early to be thinking about Christmas, so we can just blame Harvey that I have no sense of time anymore. Either that, or I'm hopeful that as we move toward Christmas (less than two months away) I might be more mindful about what it's about, and how I spend my energy.

Having just celebrated Halloween back in Chanel Vista (thank you Chanel Vista, trash trucks, city, and volunteers who made all that possible!) I noticed that things were different, but the spirit and energy of that celebration was enough. We had what we needed: candy and costumes, and most importantly: people. It was different because we are different, and our energy and other resources are focused on the recovery. I think that made this Halloween even better.

Exchanging gifts is fun, and I'm not going to suggest that no one give tangible signs of our love for one another. As we prepare for the feast of the Incarnation of God's presence among us, we might be more intentional about how we incarnate that God's love in our own lives.

Episcopal Relief and Development, who has been supporting the relief efforts in our area, Houston, and in Puerto Rico (to name a few places) also has a great program similar to Heifer International, by which one can help support villagers and farmers in economically challenged areas around the world. Programs like those, and other charitable organizations are some of the alternative giving options that help Incarnate God's presence for people in need. Charitable giving in honor of, or in thanksgiving for someone is a great way to celebrate Christmas.

Another amazing gift is to give your family or friends an experience. Purchase a massage for someone, take someone camping or fishing, buy movie tickets, or as one local family normally does:  just go cook burgers on the beach!

On black Friday, we will witness something that seems to be the antithesis of Christ's Incarnation in the world. It is a celebration of consumption and it is in service to something quite different than what Mary sang in the Magnificat when she learned of her unexpected pregnancy. Before we arrive at that season, consider how you might be intentional this Christmas season. If you get resistance, blame Harvey.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Hold on, Resurrection is Coming

Originally Published in the South Jetty Newspaper

This fall (Pre-Harvey), I was planning to lead a Bible study on Revelation, which in my tradition is carefully pronounced without the "s" at the end. In my circles, people tend to either love the book or avoid it altogether. I remember reading it for the first time, when I was in Jr. High, and it was one of the first books I couldn't put down. I actually stayed up late reading the rich, dualistic imagery of a battle for the world which the Lamb ultimately wins. Some people avoid it because of that rich, overwhelming imagery, but I'm someone who has grown to love the sometimes jarring images of dreams and poetry because it helps me pay attention to my own deep soul-work that my ego might otherwise leave undone for the sake of aparent security.

A couple of people have asked me about all the disasters happening around us and to us: if these might be the "end-times. And to that I'd like to say, of course! We are always living in the "end-times" from a Christian perspective, just as John the Revelator was living in the "end-times." I don't mean that the way others might mean it. I believe we live through several end-times in a lifetime, and that is why John's Revelation, the Book of Job, and other Biblical stories of losing everything for something greater are so powerful in our spiritual lives. To me they are stories of our ongoing human life, not a predictive story of how history will be finished.

Take, for example, Port Aransas. Destruction has come to us. Mother Nature has done her naturing, releasing energy that has built up in our warming oceans. Hurricane Harvey rolled through our town and the coastal bend ending life as we know it. Our Christian story tells us that this will happen, and that we are not to give up, give in, or go home. We are to persevere because something more is coming; life goes on through our mourning, grieving, and feeling of total loss.

We worship a God who was not afraid to face suffering, and who died; whose followers felt the loss of everything they hoped and believed in and some of them did give up completely. The ones who stuck around, persevering for three days, experienced Resurrection. I believe that is where we are heading--we are a people who hold on for the Resurrection. As the Gospels and John the Revelator teach us, we are to hang on, support one another, and not give up when we do experience these end-times (because we will, we have) and that Resurrection is coming. In the end, the Lamb wins.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Mother Mary

I love Mother Mary.

I don't always know where she fits in; being Episcopalian, I teeter between a Catholic and Protestant understanding of the saints...but that's just a doctrinal quandary.

When I relax and let my religious imagination be my guide, I remember that she bears God into the world, she glows with her own Spirit-infused radiance, and that she knows our deepest sorrows: she had to bury her child.

We have this statue of Mother Mary at Trinity by the Sea, and she has had quite an adventure through Harvey. She took a faceplant when the bricks from the wall behind her fell on her. Volunteers excavated her and helped her to stand once again. I imagine she has some Harvey-survivor memories to ponder in her heart. Now she rides on a dolly (not a donkey) as the wall is repaired, and we find the best place for her to stand and welcome in the weary souls.

As with other icons of Mary, our statue of her stands barefoot, trampling a serpent. She shares in Christ's victory over death and temptation by the evil One. She stands with open arms: a loving mother welcoming in her children who need to rest and be refreshed.  As we recover from Harvey, we will create a sitting area around her so people can receive her welcome, and sit, and perhaps be in conversation with Mother Mary. 

In Luke's Gospel, she sings,
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for you Lord have looked with favor on your lowly servant: from this day all generations will call me blessed. You O Most Mighty have done great things for me: and holy is your name. You have mercy on those who fear you: from generation to generation. You have shown the strength of your arm: you have scattered the proud in their conceit, you have cast down the mighty from their thrones: and have lifted up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things: and the rich you have sent away empty. You have come to the help of your people: you have remembered your promise of mercy, the promise you made to our forebears: to Abraham and his children for ever. 
(Luke 1:46-55, from A New Zealand Prayerbook, p. 41) 

When she learns of her pregnancy; when she realizes she has conceived God; when Mother Mary becomes the portal for God to enter the world, she sings of the vision of things to come, the vision of the kingdom of God. I want to sing with her. I want to share in living that vision into a reality. I do love Mary, and I am thankful for her presence on our church grounds. She stands as a reminder of the vision of the kingdom come.

A friend who is a priest in the church of England once pointed out that just as we ask our living friends to pray for us, it makes sense to ask our dead friends to pray for us as well. The saints are our friends, and in death life is changed, not ended.

Pray for us Mother Mary: Comfort us in our deepest sorrows, teach us to be the bearers of God in our world, help us to sing the song of the vision, so that we all might live the reality kingdom of God, and share in Christ's victory.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Punching Harvey

This photo is of my home in Port Aransas not long after Hurricane Harvey. It's not my house, as in, I don't own it. It's the rectory of Trinity by the Sea Episcopal Church, Port Aransas, Texas, where I have found my home in rectory, at a church, on an island, in an amazing community, that just got devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

I have a couple of friends who came to the island the day after, and I've talked to other locals who rode out the storm; the saw the island in even worse shape than I ever saw it. I remember, like a dream, during the storm being in College Station and so desperately wanting to see pictures, and to know how bad it was, and what was left to come home to. It was bad. I heard from the Mayor and City Manager in those first days that every building in Port Aransas incurred some degree of damage, whether 20 percent or 100 percent. In the month that has passed, people have learned more and more about exactly how the disaster damaged their property, and we are beginning to get an idea of what it will take to rebuild our home.

One of the first things I did, was set up an appointment with my therapist, James Hollis,  because I knew, as a priest in this community, I would need some spiritual/psychological support. I call him once a week, and I think it helps me be fully present to others, though, I still get angry at people from time to time. I got pissed off at the guy who called me late one night and told me he had driven into town to rebuild my house because God told him to. I didn't know this guy, and I am already feeling vulnerable. We already have a contractor who is working on rebuilding the church's rectory. I called the police, and they helped him find a way to help in our community...I hope.

I'm angry that this all happened, and the (playful) language I've been using to talk about that feeling of anger is that I want to punch Harvey, but since I can't punch Harvey, I might punch whomever comes along.

"Nature was doing it's naturing." That's the way James Hollis put it to me, referring to the reality of this hurricane which we personified by naming it Harvey is just a storm that encountered the place where I happen to live; the place I consider my home. Nature's storm left me feeling angry about the trauma I experienced through the destruction. I can't lash out at a bundle of energy that has dissipated (all over Houston) and so, I carry that frustration and anger within me, and I might just pin it on you over the littlest thing.

People do this in a variety of ways by saying (screaming, all over Facebook or to whomever will listen) "Where is [State or Federal Agency] when we need them?" I interpret the frustration as wanting to pin the feeling of violation on some external authority. Someone needs to be to blame. Could it be FEMA, Red Cross, The City, The Church, Sinners, That guy who drove to volunteer in a way that isn't helpful?  

We feel attacked, and our instinct is to fight back, and the storm that we called "Harvey" is a gentle breeze, and water in a bayou (and mold in our walls) now. One way I sought to to sacramentalize this experience was to buy a punching bag. I've hit it a number of times, and the release of energy feels good. On one side of the punching bag, I wrote "Harvey" cause that's what we call it. Harvey hit, and we can hit it back, symbolically, and playfully. On the other side I wrote, "Don't take out your aggression on others, but do become aware of your own suffering, and heal yourself through showing compassion!"

I hope, beginning with myself, that the punching bag will be a reminder to pay attention to the anger, frustration, and suffering, to release that in a healthy way, and to turn toward the healing power of showing compassion towards others. We will all need help in lots of ways, and we can become stronger for surviving this storm. Port Aransas, our home, can be a more beautiful community if we support each other compassionately, and take responsibility for our own recovery as much as we can, ask for the type of help we need, and receive the support our governmental and ecclesiastical institutions can offer.

The church is here to support in the ways it, we, can. The Episcopal Church will be here long term, to see our recovery through as far is it can, and to support us to think creatively to rebuild our community. Here's Trinity by the Sea's focus: 1. Building our School, 2. Helping PAISD Families Come Home, 3. Supporting Mental/Spiritual Health, 4. Supporting our Community Life. The Diocese if supporting us in so many ways with volunteers, funding, supplies, and spiritual support. They are also asking what we need before they barge in and inform us how God told them to help out. (As I wrote a friend, "I'm grateful for our Episcopal piety and polity.")

This I know: Each time I meet with someone in Port Aransas, I am home. It will be awhile until I move back into Trinity by the Sea's Rectory, but my home is safe and sound. My church family gathers for worship, my friends check in on one another, my neighbors are helping each other build. People are fishing and surfing whenever they can, and restaurants are opening. We've come a long way, and we are moving into the more sustainable pace of the long term recovery efforts of the next few years. It will take a lot of grace, being aware of how we can tend to our own emotional state, and lots of cooperation to rebuild. We've already begun. As we approach one month out from Harvey (Come celebrate Sunday, Aug 24, 12:30 at Robert's Point Park Pavilion) we  can remember that we've come a long way since that storm rolled through, that no one caused it, and we are trying our best envision and re-create our home here in Port Aransas.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


We've had beautiful sunsets recently! 
I had a dream last week that was very telling about what I need to be doing to keep myself healthy. I am the priest of a small, vibrant, substantial Episcopal Church called Trinity by the Sea in Port Aransas. Recently, Hurricane Harvey rolled through (nature doing its naturing, thank you Jim Hollis) and created chaos among the buildings, homes, and infrastructure upon which we've come to depend, and knew as familiar.

The beach has even changed--with a water inlet along the beach side of our jetty, and an AMAZING assortment of shells. The few times I've snuck down to the beach I've been grateful for time well spent. Sunday, after working more than I intended to, I went down to watch my wife Laura surf, and my friend Mark demanded I get out there. He even had a board waiting for me. I did, and caught a few of the small waves that were rolling through; my body and soul felt better for it.

Episcopal Family Gathered at the Supply Depot. 
The response of people across the state and country wanting to help Port Aransas from a place of of love for our island, love for the people they know there, or just wanting to show compassion for a community that has been through a trauma is the most beautiful and grace-filled thing. Sometimes it's even overwhelming. As a community, we are learning to express exactly what we need, because some of the well-intended donations have taken more time and energy than we had to spare. Bodies and dollars is the greatest tangible gift. Maybe a mop and some duct tape.

The most sustaining thing for me, what orients me to the day ahead, and what connects me with workers nearby, as well as displaced people from afar, is prayer. We gather daily at 8 a.m. in the nave of our church (which received very little damage from the hurricane!) to pray daily devotions from the Book of Common Prayer, p. 137. I live stream the prayers for people to join in through facebook. I usually bring in an extra prayer or two, and I offer a brief "what's been happening" and "whom else we're praying for" at the beginning. It grounds our work in that living water, the well that never runs dry.

A quick sketch; Do the Work

The dream I mentioned above was a rousing reminder that I need to engage in doing my own spiritual work. I need my own prayer practices, and to draw from the well of life in my own way if I am to be of service to others; if I am to be a priest to my community.

So, here I am writing. I sketched after talking the dream over with my therapist. I'll go surfing again today. I had a beer with a friend at the end of the work day yesterday. I am certain I'll be writing and playing music when I get my dry guitar back from College Station. While there is a tendency to think having the right stuff will fix problems, these 2 1/2 weeks have been a violent reminder that the spiritual practices are what will sustain us. They will empower us with perspective, stability, guidance, patience, kindness, compassion, and hope. They will remind us to love one another as God is loving us.
Pray for Port Aransas and pray for your own community; turn to the practices that sustain you, and that connect you with God's living well.

Friday, June 9, 2017

keep it holy

"Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." "Amen. Lord have mercy." 
--Book of Common Prayer p. 350, see also, the Bible. 

My mentor, the Rev. Beth Fain, often pointed out to people that this is the most commonly broken of the 10 Commandments. What a gift it was to have a rector who modeled self care by going on retreat, and having a weekly "Sabbath Day" instead of just a "day off."

My friend and colleague John Price, a Houston-based psychologist and teacher, was recently musing on the sacred act of sleep: that time when we let go of control and allow our bodies to heal and our unconscious to speak to us in dreams.

Most of the teachings of our culture are against rest, yet rest may be the greatest act of trusting God. In the New Zealand Prayer Book we pray in the Night Prayer Service "It is but lost labour that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety. For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep."

Having taken our rest, be it a weekly day off by any name, an annual vacation, or just stepping away from a problem long enough to get clarity, we often return better prepare to do the work we have to do. 

With these thoughts, I'm signing off by blog for the summer (I stop my regular writing projects each summer.) I slow down on some things to spend time doing other things; like spend time with family and friends, trying to keep it holy.

Integrating the Sacred and the Profane

"Theologians, they don't know nothin' about my soul..." So echoed the chorus from one of my favorite songs from the band Wilco. Fans chanted along, and I can't help but wonder if they meant the same thing the songwriter intended. With what felt like vehemence, the cheering crowd seemed to be speaking against the theologians, the religious professionals, and by association, perhaps, the church; they seemed to sing out against any efforts we who identify with the church might make at speaking truth regarding the human soul. They seem to lash out at some past wrong with the words from the song. A crowd of people disillusioned by organized religion thought they had their opportunity to sing against it.

Knowing the rest of the song, I believe there is a very different feeling and intention to that line from the chorus. I believe it is actually invoking a thread of our theological tradition known as apophatic theology that is more popular in Eastern branches of our church; apophatic theology begins by acknowledging that we cannot know God. It acknowledges that God is so beyond us, so much greater than the creation, and that remembering that is best starting point to move into reflecting on our relationship with God. A more western theologian in the apophatic thread is St. John of the Cross who lovingly referred to  God in Spanish as "Nada" or "No-Thing" in Dark Night of the Soul. It is a theology that has helped me begin to move through the images of God I've created, and to trust God to be God as the ineffable mystery. That particular song from a rock band in the same first person voice, sings, "I'm an ocean, an abyss in motion." It is one of the songs I return to again and again for inspiration and reflection. Instead of singing against the church, it is recalling an important if not the most popular aspect of our theology.

Another musician who has recently inspired my theological thinking is Kendrick Lamar. His most recent album "DAMN." Has songs that parallel the Psalmist's struggle to understand how God could let us suffer, as wrestles with his relationship not only with God but with those who seemed to support him. "Ain't nobody praying for me," he laments. I don't anticipate that any of our churches will be using Mr. Lamar's lyrics in our church services, but I would love to be proven wrong.

These two examples are the low hanging fruit in beginning to look at non-church music as spiritual. They are explicitly engaged in using the language the church has taught us, even if it may take some careful listening, and understanding the larger context to relate to the spiritual message of these poets. I would like to push further, though, and propose that all music is spiritual, even if it is not using the language we use to speak of the spiritual dimensions of life.

The act of being creative is allowing the imago dei (image of God) to shine through us. T.S. Elliot wrote in his poem "Rock," "The Lord who created must wish us to create." The act of being creative in any arena is engaging in the life of God. There is plenty of music that I don't enjoy listening to, and plenty I think would be contrary to the purpose of the worship life of the church. Our process of selecting music for congregational music seeks to provide common language about our relationship with God in a singable format so that the teachings might sink into our soul, and provide us with guidance along our own journey.

Much of the secular music out there is without such vetting. It is often without guide rails, and delves into the deep desires we experience as humans. The longing for temporal satisfaction found in much pop music today is honest and raw; it is often a spiritual hunger that lyrics from the song seek to fill by non-spiritual means. In that way, it can be the beginning of a spiritual journey. The desire for a lover might reflect our deep desire for connection with God. The desire for freedom might only, ultimately be found in the liberating relationship with Christ. Even the quest to get high is about a longing for an elevated state we ultimately experience when in God's close presence.

I don't know how many of the musicians writing about those temporal satisfactions are conscious of the spiritual roots of their longing, but we have the ability to hear and understand. It may even lead to a deeper understanding of our own desires, and those of others. It may help us to lovingly walk with those who are spiritually lost, like those Wilco fans chanting "you don't know nothing about my soul." No, but I know my own soul's longing to connect with the mystery of God. I know that God is at work in unimaginable ways through unsuspecting musicians. I know God's ineffable presence when I begin to create, and through the creativity of others. I believe God is still at work and is the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.