Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Soul Suffering

Originally Published in the South Jetty Newspaper

When my mentor Pittman McGehee published his book The Invisible Church, started reading and
could hardly put it down...until I got to the section on Suffering, then I wanted to either walk away or at least skip ahead. I don't like suffering (does that seem redundant?) McGehee makes clear that the suffering he writes about isn't caused by physical pain, clinical mental illness, nor from abusive relationships. Those should be taken care of appropriately and directly. He writes, "The kind of suffering I'm talking about is soul suffering, and it seems to be a requirement for the building of soul...to suffer in the spiritual sense means to carry something until we know its meaning...When something happens that causes us to suffer, [we might ask] 'What is this leading to? What truth can I discern from this suffering?'...'What does this want from me? What is its meaning?'"
Each of us has suffered in our own lives by the things dealt to us by life, and now, in Port Aransas, we have all shared a collective suffering. As we move as a community from the early acute-triage-phase of our recovery work into something a bit more sustainable, we might experience suffering in new ways. With a bit more time and space in our lives, we might project our suffering outward, instead of dealing with it inwardly. Finding life frustrating, we might seek to take out our anger on undeserving people; we might even take out our anger on ourselves or to anesthetize the suffering with drugs, drinking, or unhealthy eating. I've done my share of avoiding the suffering, even while I seeking to move toward the healthy suffering McGehee writes about. 

What is Hurricane Harvey asking of us as a community? What truth or meaning might we discern having gone through such a terrible disaster? How do we find the courage to ask such questions, and face the challenging road of carrying the spiritual suffering until we do find meaning? If we seek to suffer in a spiritual way, we will build soul as individuals, and the soul of our community will be stronger for it. 

I can't do this work alone, though it is the cross I must carry myself. I have a community in my church and together we are seeking the meaning, finding the ways this disaster is leading us into living a life closer what Jesus teaches the kingdom of God looks like. This Lent (think: the 40 days between Mardi Gras and Easter) Trinity by the Sea will have guest lecturers to speak about how suffering leads to formation, or as Pittman McGehee describes it "builds soul." I am looking forward to hearing from our guests Sunday evenings to help me, and to help us find a deeper understanding, so this suffering isn't wasted, but becomes an opportunity to rebuild ourselves as well as our buildings. 

Friday, January 19, 2018


My close friend and colleague pokes fun at the word "retreat" for those weekend-or-longer spiritual get-aways. "They are opportunities for growth, re-creation, and rejuvenation, so why do we use a word that means to go backward when we are going forward?" It's a playful argument, and there is a going backwards component to retreats in that we pull away from the "battle-front" of our busy lives and get back to remembering who we are and whose we are. And in the process of going backwards, we do, indeed, advance.

Maybe the backward-naming of such a spiritual practice is because spiritual practice is so counter cultural. We value production, staying busy, and multi tasking. Taking time to be still, reflect, and rest in God's silence is very backward by cultural standards. Another friend has taught me the principle of going slow to go fast. This one does come from the best-business-practice world and places an importance of planning, checking-in, and developing relationships so that our work and problem solving comes from a place of deeper understanding. Going slow, preparing, knowing who we are working with leads to easier conversation and decision making later.

Every Advent (the first season of the church year by which we prepare for the coming of Christ) I take a retreat with some long-time trusted friends. It comes at an otherwise busy time of year, and that's part of why it is such an important event. We spend four days in the wilderness (with comfortable accommodations.) And talk about life, church, and nothing. We eat well and have a fun time. It is a retreat that prepares me for the Christmas-Epiphany-Lent-Easter seasons to come. Usually I walk away with some surprising, unexpected insights.

John the Baptist walked away from the busy Temple-become-marketplace and called the faithful to be transformed; through his mystical, faithful witness he participated in God's coming into the world. How is your spiritual life being Advanced this Advent? Would carving out time for Retreat be just the slowing down, backward momentum to continue God's transforming work in your own life?

We have been through a lot, and have a lot yet to come. This Advent Season accept God's grace of nothing. Do nothing. Read nothing. Sit still in the wilderness and await God's presence. Be open to the way God is calling you to Retreat and Advance.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Keep it Simple

Originally Published in the Port Aransas South Jetty Newspaper

Christmas, which Christians celebrate on December 25, just on the heels of the winter solstice, is a simple celebration of Emmanuel which means “God with us.” It is a celebration of the eternal Christ/Son of God/Word of God, the second person of the Trinity putting on flesh and being born of Mary. That’s at the core of what Christmas about, anyway. Often times lots of other things are packed around it, and from time to time something comes crashing across our path that returns us to the meaning of Christmas: The Grinch can take away all the presents, and all the Whos down in Whoville will still gather around in a circle and sing. A hurricane can run through our town and leave us wondering which way is up for months, and still we will gather to sing “Silent Night” by candlelight. Every available bed in town may be occupied, and still, Mary will find a humble dwelling to give birth to God among animals and feed in an overlooked village.

It takes more trust than I can normally muster to return to the simplicity of Christmas. I usually
buy in to all the other things that happen around this time of year: sales and lights and parties; reindeer and egg nog and sweaters. It’s all good, seasonal fun that I enjoy as much as the next person, but the simplicity of God dwelling here among us ultimately requires no fanfare. Sometimes we may even miss out on God’s presence, being too busy going about creating the perfect experience, however we imagine that experience needs to be. Maybe the Grinches and hurricanes can serve as (painful) reminders of what’s most important; maybe an unscheduled birth in a barn with no one but angels and shepherds singing  is what we need to remind us what is of the greatest value in our lives—they point us back to the meaning, and remind us who we really are.

The experiencing God’s Incarnation, God among us, requires nothing from us in order for it to happen, just that we are awake enough to pay attention, and trust that God is here. We don’t make Christmas happen, like a magic trick with a puff of smoke and then God appears. Not even with right words or prayers or devotion as if God’s love might be bought by good behavior. God with us means that God is here with us by God’s own doing; God is Incarnate among us. Not just in a historical reenactment, in which we try to get the color of Mary’s veil just right. (Though I do love seeing children learn the nativity story!) God is here in the simple presence of the person near to you. The person you love, or the person you don’t know, or the person you are just getting to know.

Christmas is about trusting that God is God, and God is here. We receive the gift of God’s presence: the Reality that God is here with us. Christmas reorients us to remember that God is the one who comes to us to show us love in simple, unexpected ways, often with no fanfare, sometimes even with no wrapped gifts, nor familiar home.

More about what's happening at Trinity by the Sea  since Hurricane Harvey: 

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.