Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Getting to General Convention

Flying cross-country from Boston to California, I managed to get a window seat. I slept the first few hours, but we were pretty much above just clouds for that part. Then, somewhere mid-country, the cloud cover totally cleared and I simply ignored the fact that I had carried a book with me that I've been wanting to read for a long time. Instead, I pressed my face against the window and watched the amazing country 36,000 feet below. The airline had a GPS navigation map on the seat back for each of us, so I was able to follow the map along with the rivers and major road lines, keeping track as we passed into South Dakota and dropped south over Nebraska. What amazing patchwork of farmland our country is! I wasn't aware before of just how different the colors of the various crops could be. Some looked pink or even violet. The various greens were expected, but they were seemingly outnumbered by the golds and rusts. It was breathtaking.

Then across Colorado, with its flat eastern farmlands leading abruptly into amazing mountains. The snow up high caught my eye immediately. It was still fairly early morning in that time zone, and the slanted sunlight and stark shadows accentuated the wild youth of these western mountains. So different from the eastern ones that wrap me up with "home".

Then on over red rock and canyonland. Stark bare buttes and broad flat mountaintop plateaus. I was a bit overwhelmed with the amazing diversity of land that is part of the one whole we call the United States of America.

Then I spent a few days in San Francisco. We have our own versions of "diversity" in New Hampshire, but it is pretty White there! Not San Francisco. Chinatown. The Fillmore Jazz Festival. Everywhere I went there were varieties of colors and languages. What a treat to once again be reminded of the amazing diversity of peoples and experiences and backgrounds that are part of the one whole we call the people of the United States of America.

And then I arrived at General Convention - the once every three year gathering of those chosen by the Episcopal Church to lead by setting policy and envisioning program and making some very hard budget decisions. General Convention brings together people from many different nations, many different languages, many colors and backgrounds and life situations. Many different gospel passions. And I am struck by the wonder and beauty of the possibility held in the coming together of our differences. Of holding them side by side. Of the possibility of showing such a wonder of God's making to the world around us.

And now, to bed. It's been a long first day. Committee work began at 8 this morning. We had a half hour break for lunch, and because of our diocesan deputation gathering to share notes, only a short time for dinner, and ended at 9 tonight. This is not an easy job! But, I spend my first day full of hope. God is good. And I believe that Jesus will get what Jesus prays for. May we all be one, as Jesus and the Father are one.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Baptism

I sit in awe of the requests before me for 6 baptisms. We're a small church and sometimes have a couple of baptisms each year. But six! It looks like we'll start them the Sunday after Christmas and continue through the first Sunday after the Epiphany, with one still probably to come after that. The realities of modern life and our means of living so far from our home 'village' mean that baptismal dates are not only shaped by the church calendar, but also by our family travel possibilities. Christmas holiday time is good family travel time. But as I thought about it, what better time for baptisms? Christmas. The Feast of the Incarnation. Celebrating new birth. Celebrating God's love taking form in human flesh. Epiphany. Recognizing God's love among us. I'm really excited about it all, and deeply joyful about welcoming each one of them.

I'm also faced with a few, shall we call them . . . 'irregularities'? Things that are outside of the norms of how we have come to think about and experience baptism. But then, there was nothing "normal" about the first baptism I did 16 years ago. And I'm totally ok with that. After all, to paraphrase someone I know and love, "Baptism was made for humanity, not humanity for Baptism."

The first time I did a baptism I was a seminary student. It was the summer of my Clinical Pastoral Education unit (CPE) during which seminarians spend full time in a hospital or similar setting learning about pastoral ministry and learning about ourselves. I did my CPE at a trauma center in Maryland. It was the end of a long day, and I wasn't on-call for that night so was stopping by the chaplain's office to hand the pager off to the next on-call person so I could head home. Instead I found myself swept up into a crisis beyond my imagining. "All Chaplains to the Emergency Room!" came the call. And all 4 of us in training that summer headed over there.

One became security as he tried to physically hold back the drunk grandfather from attacking his daughter-in-law, screaming "You killed those babies!" We were told that the police were on the way. Several chaplains worked to calm and listen to the large extended family as they gathered. I ended up in a separate room with the daughter-in-law as she sobbed her story to me. She had walked down the road to the check cashing store to cash her support check. Then she had walked a littler further on to pick up some cigarettes and something to drink before she headed back home. She had left her two young children at home alone. And they had found one of her cigarette lighters. There was an awful home fire. Her five year old daughter was dead. Her two year old son was in the ER, fighting for his life. She was absolutely beside herself as she sobbed to me, "I never had them baptized! I never had them baptized!"

My own beliefs are deeply shaped by my more protestant background. I don't believe baptism to be something we do that forces God to do something that God isn't already wanting and willing and able to do! Baptism is our stepping into the love of God that is already operative for us. God had already loved that little girl so much, even though she wasn't baptized. That beloved little girl had already that day been welcomed into God's loving arms.

So I did the only thing I could do. I baptized that dead little girl. Brenda (the mom) and I went into the room where her daughter lay covered. I pulled back the sheet as her mother sobbed. And I said prayers thanking God for steadfast love that doesn't depend upon us getting everything 'right'. And I baptized that little girl, praying in my heart for Brenda as I knew she would have to deal with so many things anyway as she dealt with leaving her children home alone and the aftermath. She didn't need to wonder about God's love and welcome for her daughter.

Then I handed Brenda into the care of another chaplain and I headed to the ER room where the trauma team was prepping the two year old boy for a med-flight to a specialized children's burn unit in another city. The team found me some sterile water, a patch of skin that hadn't been burned, and I baptized Brenda's son. (He died two days later.)

It's not normal to baptize dead little girls. It's a little 'irregular', but it certainly was right. I helped Brenda carry her little girl into the light of God's love, and hopefully find herself there as well.

So, I've got a couple of other 'irregularities' coming up. Nothing of the crisis type that I've faced before, but I think that one has helped me truly connect with the love of God that runs under and through our act of baptizing. So I'll baptize an adult who has never come to worship with us, but who has found a place to belong and a welcome from God through being an active part of our main parish outreach - our thrift shop. He came to me, explaining how he has come to feel about belonging here. What it has meant to his life (not an easy journey he's been on). How he wants to 'officially' belong. God has reached out to him. We get to join in that welcome. How blessed we are to be able to be a part of that! (And how fitting to think of this as I begin to ponder the meaning of the parable we'll hear this coming Sunday - the one where some hear a welcome like this: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you . . . for you gave me clothing.") And I'll baptize the children of a family that has connections with another church as well - - and will probably have those baptisms recorded there. But what a joy to be able to live beyond our own human definitions of "church membership" as we get this opportunity to celebrate the breadth of God's love, and the many ways and places that God uses in search of connecting with us. And I'll give such thanks with the families of the other two infants, as I rejoice in their ability to seek and find God's love in the everyday aspects of their journeys.

And I keep praying for Brenda, in her own journey. May God continue to be with her in her grief, and in her life.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Back to Work

It's been hard to find time to write - this being "back from sabbatical" life is busy!! My only other experience of parish life after a sabbatical was when I was the Associate, and the Rector had gone on sabbatical. I, the Associate, was around to make sure that things kept going and that we were ready for the Rector when he returned. Right now, I'm STILL trying to get the fall schedules done, and education running, and am sweating out getting an October newsletter put together.

But I do need to keep writing. I miss it! I don't do it quickly, or easily - but the discipline of reflecting on life and putting thoughts together into coherent sentences (as much as possible) actually helps me to sort life out. And I've still got so much to sort out from this summer.

So, tomorrow I'm going to try to move my 'sabbatical mode' (of being in the community and welcoming conversation) into my everyday life. I've got call forwarding added to our parish phone service. Our local coffee shop has free wi-fi internet access. So, I'm going to take my laptop, forward calls from the office to my cell phone, and sit at the coffee shop. I can start my sermon work, maybe write a blog entry or the cover article for the newsletter. But the point is to not do all that locked away from view in my office. At "The Met" I'll be generally visible and accessible to all. I think my real hope is to not actually get all that "work" done, but to make connections. To be available.

I guess if I'm going to sit at the coffee shop all morning . . . I'm going to have to switch to decaf?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Look Down AND Look Around

Tips from the Trail #3: Even when you need to watch your footing, don't forget to stop and look around.

There are trails (somewhere) where you don't need to look down constantly, but I've not met one here in the Whites like that. Rocks, roots, muddy spots. You name it. It's under your feet. And if you don't watch out for every footstep, you'll soon find yourself falling.

So as you hike up here, you look down. Constantly. It's a necessary part of hiking. You watch your feet. You could go for a long time without seeing anything other than your own feet and the rocks and roots and muddy spots.

It takes a conscious act to make yourself stop moving and look around. You have to actually stop to see the world - - the real reason you're out there anyway. I have found it so important to make sure I stop for a minute, quite often, to look around me. The woods are places of wonder. It's not just about being at the top of a mountain. There were spots this last week that were so richly green and lush that it took my breath away. But you'd miss it if you just kept walking. In fact, in many of those locations I even needed to touch the beauty - I would literally stoop down and get my hands onto the moss or into the lush moist undergrowth.

There were incredibly beautiful orange mushrooms. Ripe wild blueberries. Sweet little water cascades. The smell of the spruce. Things that don't measure up on any scale of grandeur, but which are wonders in and of themselves. But you have to stop moving your feet long enough to be able to look around you and soak in the wonders.

I suppose you could simply walk for the sake of walking. You could simply hike and see only your own feet and the rocks and roots and muddy spots. Some people enjoy hiking just for the walking's sake. But that really has nothing to do with why I'm out there. Don't get me wrong - - I enjoy the actual hiking. I've learned to enjoy the challenge and the pace and the satisfaction. But, at its heart, it's about being in a world so much bigger than myself. It's about being able to see and experience that world. Hiking is the means, rather than the end, for me.

I was sitting on top of West Bond at 8:30 in the morning one day last week. West Bond is one of the mountains in New Hampshire with the most incredible views imaginable. The early morning sunlight was incredible and the views seemed endless in every direction. A couple joined me around 9. He took two pictures. She just stood there and leaned on her hiking poles, looking more at the ground than anywhere else. They asked me to take their picture together. Then, in a matter of just a couple of minutes, they were gone - - off to 'bag' another 4000 footer (there are 48 mountains in New Hampshire on the official 4000 Footer list for "peak baggers" to hike to - - these are the mountains that are at least 4000 feet tall and have at least so many feet of vertical ascent between themselves and the other tall mountains around them (I forget what that figure actually is). I am a "peak bagger" and have now climbed 35 of these mountains, six of them just in the last week of my sabbatical.)

I sat for another half hour or so, taking in the views and considering the difference in those two 'peak baggers' and myself, who am also a 'peak bagger'.

You can be a peak bagger to simply climb all 48 of those mountains. Or . . .you can be a peak bagger in order to challenge yourself to explore mountains you might not otherwise have explored. To find places of wonder and beauty, and to enjoy them. (OK - sometimes, even in the midst of trying to focus on that, you do still simply 'bag a peak' - - Owl's Head was like that for me as I hiked that one in the driving rain. And I simply do not know what else was going on in that couple's life that day.)

Kinda like being a church goer. You can go to church . . . just to be someone who goes to church. You enjoy it, check it off, and move on. Or you can go to church in order to connect to things you wouldn't otherwise connect with. To touch and be touched by God. To have your life transformed into something it wouldn't otherwise be able to become. (And sometimes, even trying to allow church to be about that, you simply have to go because that is what you do.)

And . . . maybe it's a lot like my own struggles with how I had begun to go about being a priest. Fourteen years of the day to day needs of the institution had begun to shape my priesthood into being about maintaining the institution. I hope my sabbatical has helped me reconnect with what is at the heart of our churches. With what is at the heart of my faith. With what is at the heart of my calling as a priest.

Even when I need to carefully watch my footing, so to speak, I need to remember to stop and be in wonder with the whole reason for being. Even as I 'bag' another task that needs to be done, I need to remember that it's not about the task, but about where that task brings me or my parish. Being a priest is not about maintaining an institution, but about nurturing a church in ways that allow it to bear witness to the wonder and gift and transformation of God's love in our lives. I've gotta do what needs to be done to 'maintain the institution' - - but that is the means, not the end.

Tomorrow, I go back to work. May I not forget.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hot Spots

Tips from the Trail #2: Pay attention to 'hot spots'.

This is the way it happens: I'm moving up the trail pretty well. I know I'll need to make a stop for one reason or another in a little while. Maybe the trail is steep and I know I'll soon need to stop and catch my breath, but not yet. Or, just the very beginnings of some hunger pangs are starting to make themselves known, and I know that I'll need to stop for lunch "in a little while". Or, I just recently had a break for one reason or another, and it seems silly/unproductive/not right to stop again already. So I ignore the 'hot spot' on my foot. The place where some kind of friction is taking place, and has called attention to itself. Not pain. Not a problem right now. Just a little warm spot. "Another 15 minutes won't matter!" seems to just naturally come forth in reaction. And I walk on.

It's how I started in Vermont this year. A hot spot on a part of my foot where I've never in my life (started backpacking at age 13!) had a hot spot before. Surely it wasn't really a problem, was it? And I ignored it, for a while.

By the time I couldn't ignore it anymore, it had become a full-out mega blister. Too late to prevent this next step in the foot problem progression, I now tried to handle the blister. The non-stop wet weather and muddy muddy trail meant constantly wet feet, and nothing would stay in place on my feet. I tried everything I knew - most of which I had learned second hand from the 'blister queen' (a title owned by my favorite hiking partner, Geode). But nothing, in those conditions, seemed to stay on, or protect, or keep it clean. Ignoring that initial hot spot, while it was still treatable, eventually led to a large open hole on the arch of my foot, and the infection that eventually hobbled me for a couple of weeks.

I sit now, looking back on the amazing amount of pain it caused me ("It's just a hole in my foot! It was just a blister, for goodness sake! Why does it hurt all the way up into my ankle, and down through my toes???") I could truly kick myself for ignoring that first hot spot. Yes, I've healed. I'm back hiking. But it could have been so different. I could have at least gotten in more of the Long Trail - more of my original plans. I could have avoided so much pain. I came out 'ok' . . . but it didn't have to be this way.

Thus it too often is in life. In parish ministry. In so many things. Pay attention to hot spots.