Friday, November 16, 2018

Spiritual and Religious

It is with great respect to those who undoubtably find connection with divinity outside the church (or Synagogue, Mosque, Temple, Monastery, etc.) that I offer a brief exploration of the benefits (often challenging) of being part of a religious community. Just today I mentioned to someone that surfing "checks all the spiritual boxes for me." When I surf (sometimes alone) I experience God through nature, exercise, my body, in beauty, and in solitude. I get it. Maybe it's fishing or art or contemplation for someone else. I am a big fan of finding your own way. I actually think that's an essential part of being religious, but there is more. Being part of a faith tradition (for me it's "the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement", to quote our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry) offers experience, tradition, and accountability. Those things challenge me to get outside of myself, and to consider the experience of others. Trinity by the Sea, our Episcopal Parish in Port Aransas, is an integral part of a Diocese, a National Church, and a Global Communion, we have a big church family. Just here in South Texas, I have two bishops and 90 clergy to make sure I remain healthy in my ministry. The members of our congregation here have one another with whom to reflect, be supported; people turn to when the bottom of their faith drops out, and to celebrate the joys of the seasons of life together.
I'm pondering Jesus' words "whenever two or three are gathered together, I will be among them." There is certainly something about being in community that changes the quality of our spiritual journey. There's more than the sum of the parts; something quintessential in community. To think we can go it alone is to forget that we have evolved to be in community--we are wired to be with others. I'm not advocating for conformity or agreeing to certain doctrine. I'm advocating for community.
The religious word comes from Latin, meaning to re-connect. Religions at their best help us to reconnect. I am well aware that the religious institutions, my own among them, have abused their power and privilege through history. That's our shadow side. The gold of these institutions of religion is that they are the vessels of great spiritual treasure. They pass down stories of people's best articulation of bizarre encounters with divinity. They are stories of people's spiritual journeys. The practices of our churches are just that: practices. My annual walk with Jesus through Holy Week and Good Friday prepare me for the Good Fridays of my own life, and it teachs me to remember to hold on: Resurrection is coming.
Thanks be to God for religious communities in which we journey with others. I have my own spiritual path to follow, and my community encourages, challenges, and supports me as I grow. I'm grateful that I get to be spiritual and religious.

Friday, May 18, 2018

On the death of two nieces

Beatrice (l) and Erin (r) each died in the Spring of 2018

I sat at the dining table with my dad and my wife selecting readings from the Bible as well as hymns and other music for my niece Erin's funeral. She died in a head-on collision on her way to go fishing in the coastal bend, one of her very favorite things to do. She was 22 and seemed to have been really finding herself. She had just rescued two baby opossums, and we worked with her roommate to get them to a wildlife rehab center. The opossums were no surprise, that was Erin.

At the dining table, we had our Episcopal prayer book, hymnal, and the Bible. My dad and I took turns with his reading glasses. In the middle of it all was the bulletin from my niece Beatrice's funeral two months before. Beatrice was 16 and struggled with depression until it took her life. As we wept and read, my dad commented, "Who would have thought we would use Beatrice's funeral to plan another one."

Beatrice & Eli in NC
Beatrice took her own life; Laura and I were there with her mom and dad, and another sister when she finally breathed her last breath in the hospital. Beatrice loved being on the water too. For her, it was the boundary waters--I'm not sure if she fished. She and Erin spent some time hiking parts of the Appalachian trail last summer. They loved being out in nature.

We all know, on some level that the souls of each of those girls is fine, and there is a strange comfort in knowing they are together...certainly not in the way we would prefer. We would prefer they be getting excited about this summer's adventures in the Smokey Mountains, and what canoeing and bay fishing trips were coming up. Our family is heartbroken; I can't imagine what it's like for Eli, my 7 year old, to know that healthy, vibrant people die. He has a perspective on life that only came to me through my work as a priest. He just melted onto the couch when I told him Erin died. The second of his cousins in just over two months.

When I meet with families before funerals, I talk about the purpose of a funeral: It's about remembering the person's life, commending them to God, and identifying those qualities we admired in that person so that we can honor them and God by living those qualities out in our own lives. Funerals don't fix things; they often dredge up more pain in the moment. They do plant seeds that will grow. Commending our loved ones to God is a life-long task. I don't think I'll ever not wish Beatrice and Erin were still with us, here, on our terms. They are with God, and when I practice remembering that, I find some glimmer of peace. That they are together with God, again, brings a strange comfort.

I remember the light that was in them. I know each of them struggled. They lived full, rich lives, if not as long as we wanted them to live. I remember their laughter. I didn't know the challenges they faced as their parents did, but I know there was struggle. I remember them setting of on adventure, and now they are off on the ultimate adventure.

Erin joined us for Easter
The third thing that funerals bring are a point of reflection: looking at the life lived, and examining our own lives. How can we honor the dead? Remember them in the way we live. My father taught me a long time ago that when we sing the Sanctus, that "Holy, holy, holy Lord" song during the prayer before communion, to remember the voices of the dead are singing along surrounding the throne of God. For him, it's long been his parents. For me, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and now nieces gather around to sing together, and we sing with them. We commune with them as we share the communion of Christ. It's a practice of communion that flows out into the rest of life. That communion sets a pattern, or plants a seed to further grow in our larger lives. We go out to commune with our dead in other ways: While fishing, creating art and music, hiking a trail, sitting with family or friends around a dining table.

In all of that and in ways I do not yet understand, the funeral is ultimately about Resurrection. It is for us to remember even as we still sit in the experience of Good Friday, that Christ was Resurrected from the dead, and proclaimed to us that we too shall be resurrected. The funeral liturgy, we were reminded by the priests at both of their funerals, is an Easter liturgy. We may not be there yet, but it is a reminder that we are on a journey toward Easter and Resurrection.

Erin was her own person, and lived her own beautiful life, and died a tragic death. Mourning her loss, and celebrating her life will forever be mingled with Beatrice's life and death, because of the proximity. When I hike the Appalachian trail this summer, they will be with me. Beatrice was there at the dining table helping us plan Erin's funeral. When we remember them, they are present. I hope I can honor their lives by the way I live my own life. They are a part of the great Cloud of Witnesses now; gone from us in a way, and right here in the midst of us in another way.

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 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.