Monday, September 26, 2016

I Heard You Died

Last week the rumor that Desmond Tutu had died flew over Facebook. A site with a name similar to a respected news source posted an article. A few people shared it, and hours later Desmond Tutu’s family had to release a statement. Tutu himself was in the hospital, but, as in the great quotes from Monty Python, declared he was not dead yet.

The whole incident reminded me how quickly incorrect information, speculation, and allusion can spread, particularly regarding someone’s health. Often, those who are sharing the information are well-meaning, but the result causes distress. The person and family and friends can be inundated with people calling with their incorrect information, and instead of spending their time and energy healing, they spend time and energy correcting inaccurate information. When we are going through stressful times, knowing people are discussing our distress is troubling. In some cases, the rumor is so hurtful, relationships are damaged. 

We in community can provide support for those among us who are going through stressful times. We can offer prayers, presence, and help, and often providing those things means we have information about the situation. How do we, as faithful members in communities, honor information about distressing situations of others, and what do we do with information we may have?

1.    Ask ourselves, "Is this my story to share?” Your story to share is yours. The state of your health, the state of your personal life, any distress you are experiencing, any joy you welcome - they directly happen to you and are yours. You are the one who gets to share the story, including as many or as few details as you choose to include. If the said incident did not happen to you, if you are not the one who is ill or in distress, it is not your story to share.

2.    If it is not my story to share, do I have have explicit permission to share the story?  When we have family members, close friends, coworkers, and even acquaintances, we inevitably have access to information about their health and well-being. Perhaps they have shared with us in a deeply sensitive conversation. Perhaps we have been the recipient of a group email. Perhaps we have come by this information through casual conversation. Regardless of how we have come by the information, before sharing it with anyone else, we have the responsibility to discern whether or not we have explicit permission to share this information. How do we do that? The conversation may look like this: “Thank you for sharing this information with me. If other mutual friends ask me about your situation, how would you like me to respond?” Unless you have permission from the person whose story it is, you hold the story in your heart.

3.    Do not share information gathered through third parties. If I had a quarter for each time a parishioner has come to me, saying, “I heard about Jane when I was talking to Mary, and Mary said Jane was (fill in the blank with incorrect information) because Sally told her,” I could retire. Information that has travelled through several people is almost always incorrect, and it is quite honestly gossip. One way to be kind and caring when someone shares information about another’s health with you is simply to ask, “Did the person give you explicit permission to share this information?” If the answer is, “No,” a reminder of #2 may be helpful.

4.    Ask yourself, “Does sharing this information help the person in distress?” I wonder if we share information about others because we sound like we are in the proverbial loop and not because it truly helps another. Sharing with our prayer group (because she has given us permission) Jane is sick and needs help with meals is useful information. Continuing the conversation about how someone other than Jane told you she is undergoing tests for cancer? Not so helpful and in fact, is likely hurtful. Talking about a person who is not present in the room should be a conversation held with honor and prayer, and words spoken cautiously so we don’t move from sharing helpful information to sharing incorrect and hurtful information that is not ours to share. 

5.    Recognize everyone who is undergoing a health or personal crisis has different comfort levels. Some people are comfortable with freedom of information; others are very private. When someone is in a time of distress, we honor their choices, including that of information sharing. That includes posting anything on social media about another’s health and well-being. 

6.    Realize clergy cannot freely share information.  I have a practice of asking the question regarding what information the person would like me to share, and that is exactly what I can share. I’m not keeping secrets; I’m honoring confidentiality. I do appreciate when members hear of someone’s illness come to me rather than engage in speculation, and I also appreciate when they realize I can only share information I’ve been given permission to share.

7.    Beware of narrative public prayers. This is a particular issue with me. Prayers that sound like this: God, we pray for Jane, that she be healed from her cancer, because we all know what a challenge her life has been and how her husband cheated on her with the UPS woman and how her children are not present for her in this time of need…” I wish I could say I’m exaggerating, but no. God knows our needs, and God does not need a list. Simply stating the person’s first name is adequate. Gossip in the name of God is still gossip. I think prayers of silence are most helpful, with a few words as possible. 

8.    Remember the power and grace of not knowing.  I often have this conversation:  “I saw Jane was on the prayer list. Why?” Instead of asking someone besides Jane, remember the grace of a direct, handwritten note to someone that says, “I noticed your name on the prayer list, and I am praying daily for you.” Our prayers are not more valid because we have information, and often, especially when someone is ill, not having to share more information is a gift of grace.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Fifteen Years Later...

I'm always amazed at the memorial power of smells.

A few days ago, the house across the street was demolished. Nothing particularly exciting, until I walked out the door the next morning, a particularly humid Kentucky morning, and took a deep breath.

And for a few moments, I was right there again.

The smell of concrete dust, its acrid, gritty scent, will forever push me back to the aftermath of September 11th. I've long-since given up hope that one day, I will simply smell concrete dust.

I don't talk or write much about my experiences on that day and the year following to those who did not share that experience. I was in my last year in seminary. I saw one tower fall. I worked at a hospital that day and Ground Zero for the year after. The basic facts are public. The deeply etched experiences, not so much.

At a one-year anniversary service, I spoke about my experiences at the first church I served in Alabama. I regret sharing my memories. Doing so felt deeply uncomfortable, like I was speaking my experience so others could publically examine and partake in my grief as a commodity, in the way we select items from a buffet to which we've brought nothing.

Grief is not a commodity. It is our own deeply personal experience and response to having life shifted and gored from what seems comfortable, loving, and expected. I am thankful for those who share how their own experiences that day and in the aftermath have been transformed for them into insight and wisdom.

And I am most thankful, quite honestly, for the ones who allow it to stand as it is: a horrific experience. My soul is comforted by the reflections from those who, like me, stood in the smoking ruins and remember thinking this is as close to hell as any of us wanted to be; who share their stories of laughing at something that happened when we were knee deep in wreckage and dust during the days following because we were all afraid to cry because what...if...we...couldn't...stop; who wonder sometimes if it was real, if we were there, then seeing all the media coverage again and feeling the trauma in our cells and souls and knowing we were.

Grief is our own, and for all the words and pastoral ideas and theories about it, she must simply be given her due. Some give grief her due by sharing their stories, preaching on them, weaving them into theological wisdom.

Others of us offer our memories to that particular community, and the community sits silently in the wisdom of trauma, knowing God sits with us in this, too, and God knows the wisdom of silence.

Some weeks after 9/11, I took the subway up to the Upper West Side to see my therapist. When I walked down the street to her office, I was unsettled by the normalcy that surrounded me. No posters of missing women and men hanging on every available wall space. No candles and altars making sidewalks sacred. No dust. No smells that weren't typical New York smells. It all seemed just fine.

But it wasn't. They, too, were gashed. Their wounds looked different. They were more deeply hidden, but still as wounding. Maybe the wounds we bear on our surface are somehow easier to heal because to go on living, we have to care for them, tend them, and give the jagged edges time to knit together. The wounds below the surface, the ones that aren't as visible but still as damaging, can convince us we are okay.

Until we realize we are not okay, and we are pretending others' grief, their anger, and even their healing is our own. Until we realize we, too, must grieve for that which is not as we had planned, for that which may never be okay. Too often, trauma at public event like 9/11 allows an easy way to fetishize grief and anger. We can grieve as a distant public act, never allowing it to connect to and even reveal the brokenness within us - the grief that is truly ours. How might our souls heal if instead we sat with our own unhealed wounds and felt what they say to us.

On this anniversary, I again remember the wisdom that grief is my own. I wish I could have learned this from a book, but life does not work that way. I pray for those whose lives have been changed by terror act after terror act after terror act in cities and towns and communities across the globe. I give thanks for my friend Rob who is telling his stories and letting some of us sit silently - in my soul we are all around a campfire on the Plains somewhere, giving the silence of grief her due while coyotes howl. I will remember all the dust and debris that crashed down that day and into the souls of so many. I will cry.

And then I will take a deep breath, filled with all the scents of life, and I will breathe again and again. Because grief reminds us of that, too. We are still here, still breathing, still capable of healing and love.

We are still alive.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Classic Country and Common Prayer

I grew up on classic country. Hank, Sr., Waylon and Willie. Dolly. Loretta.

If you've listened to country, you know the list. You know the sounds. You know the joke about playing a country song backwards and getting your job back, your spouse back, and your dog back.

When I was much younger, country was not a mainstream genre. Artists would play local fairs and festivals, and they would actually play instruments. If you couldn't sing and play, you likely didn't last long. Local radio stations were intimately involved with an artist's song being played, and autotune did not exist. But sparkly suits did.

Country is now a mainstream genre, and I don't recognize most of the music. Between bro country, which has long overstayed its welcome, and radio conglomerates, the deep, earthy music with roots in Bluegrass, Blues, Celtic, and Gospel is rarely heard on the radio.

Thankfully roots grow deep, and some singers, songwriters, and musicians have souls that reach back to sing the music of the past with newness. If you haven't heard Chris Stapleton, I commend his music to you. It's filled with heartache, hope, poor choices, and whisky. In other words, it's country from its first to its last guitar chord.

I share all this because this image, the mainstreaming of country music, came to mind as I read and re-read Derek Olsen's Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as Guide to a Spiritual Life, newly released from Forward Movement. Full and fair disclosure - I write for several of Forward Movement's ministries, including Lent Madness, and I received an advance copy, asking if I would blurb the book. I don't normally do book reviews on the blog, but this book needs to be in the hands of many Episcopalians, clergy and laity.

As a priest, liturgy is a big part of what I do. As an Episcopal priest, the liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer are foundational for me, for all who took vows, and for all who worship in the Episcopal Church. They are the solid ground on which our patterns and habits of worship are built. They are, as Derek writes, the center of our unity.

Yet like the allure of all that seems hip and cool, I wonder if we've too easily put the Book of Common Prayer on the shelf with our classic country record albums, appreciating it only as a relic of the past while we attempt to sate our deep spiritual longing with auto-tune. I've lost count of the number of clergy who have looked at me with some disdain with I share we "only" use the Book of Common Prayer and approved supplemental eucharistic liturgies (i.e. Enriching Our Worship) for Sunday Eucharists.

"Don't you want your church to grow?" they ask.

"But you're a woman," some have said.

"Are you not good at liturgy?"

Yes, I want the church to grow as disciples of Jesus.

Yes, I'm a woman, and thanks for making a vast gender stereotype.

And yes, I am good at liturgy. But not better than thousands of years of a faith community.  I love the Book of Common Prayer. I love the acts that have been, as Derek so correctly says, "embraced and passed on by a diverse group over the centuries - not just dreamed up by a few people last week."

I love the way the Book speaks about Jesus and our faith. I love that silence is an integral part of our prayer life, not just a haphazard lapse of time between words. I love the ancient and modern words held together in the same place. I love the cadences of prayers said day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.

I don't love that so many seem to ignore these prayers because they are not hip and cool enough, because they are not modern enough, not high church enough, or not whatever enough for worshipping communities.

The Episcopal Church, the church itself, is bigger than me and my likes and dislikes. Derek delves deeply into the whole of the Book of Common Prayer, starting with the liturgical calendar, moving through the Daily Office (a service I am always thankful to see given import), and reminds us of the significance, the richness, the complexity and the simplicity of our life of prayer. He elegantly weaves together the historical significance of the Book of Common Prayer, the spiritual depth of it, the eternal wisdom of the process of letting God work with and in us in our lives as we worship, and his own reflections about prayer in his life.

He reminds readers of why this Book matters. It is a way - a prominent way - we as Episcopalians nurture our relationship with God. Derek takes the parts of liturgies, from the collects to scriptures to incense, and shares how each piece invites us into a different aspect of our relationship with God, each other, and ourselves. After reading his book, I returned to the Holy Eucharist on Sunday with a vision of a beauty I'd seen for years, but now appreciated with more focus.

Derek, I suspect, would not hold that the Book of Common Prayer should never change. After all, human relationships with God are all about change. He does remind us that the classics have withstood time for a reason. They speak to the vastness of human experience, and while we are invited, welcomed, and challenged to reconsider how we express our experiences and relationships with God in new ways, we should be careful how quickly we discount the words, the silences, and the prayers our souls have spoken for eons.

I'm so glad Derek wrote this book. I hope clergy will read, learn, and inwardly digest it. I hope laity will do the same. Its insights will inform both. Get this book, put on some Dolly Parton, and reconnect with the richness of all that is the Book of Common Prayer.

If you'd like to order Derek's book, it's available here from Forward Movement. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

We Only Work One Day a Week...

Yep, all clergy have heard that joke.

And no, it's not funnier because we've heard it 827 times.

But I do suspect many people wonder what do we do all week. After all, how long can it take to plan  a service, write a sermon, and do all the pastoral care a church requires?

Well, since you asked, here's what a typical clergy week is for many of my clergy friends. Depending on church size, denominational affiliation, and full time vs part time, there will be differences (so don't print this out and take it to your pastor, demanding to know why her week looks different). This seriously not scientific study happened mostly over coffee.

Getting the church ready for worship: On Sunday, this means lights on, scripture set, coffee made, doors unlocked, information for worshippers set out, and a dozen other housekeeping items that must be done to make holy space ready. But it also means making sure the building is welcoming to the life that happens at the church during the week. My church has gatherings every day of the week, so carpets have to be vacuumed, chairs arranged, calendars coordinated, and doors unlocked. I'm thankful to have a sexton, an office manager, and many volunteers to help, but many of the clergy I spoke with do all of this themselves. And, even with volunteers and staff, the work lands on my desk if it doesn't get done. Many churches are busy on days of the week other than Sunday, as they should be.

Speaking of worship: Let me be clear - there are no worship service elves who come in during the middle of the night on Saturday and plan the service. Trust me, I've asked. This responsibility sits with the priest, pastor, and minister. Again, some churches have worship committees, but many don't. A typical Sunday service with no special additions takes anywhere from 4 to 6 hours to plan and prepare for, not including the sermon. And if it's Holy Week, Christmas, or a special day, double that time. Even in the Episcopal Church, where our Book of Common Prayer guides us, there are still prayers, music, and physical space considerations. And my favorite thing - bulletins preparation. An aside, I'm convinced the 7th circle of hell will consist of days alternating between church committee meetings and bulletin preparation.  Also, funerals, weddings, and other non-Sunday services demand and are given their own holy time of preparation, often in addition to the Sunday worship.

Then there's the sermon:  A young priest once said to me, "I really thought I'd spend half of my time as a priest reading, studying, and writing my sermon." I think coffee came out of nose as I snort-laughed. Yes, I wish I could spend that much time on my sermons. I think preaching the Word of God is one of the more important things we do. On a good week, I probably do spend about 10 hours on my sermon, but that time is almost never in-office time. It's evening time or early morning. I've learned once I get in the office, I have too many distractions to allow for the kind of focus I need. Other clergy friends of mine take an afternoon or block of time during the week. We all have what works for us. And yes, there are those weeks when there's too much to do and too little time where we punt. So please remember that if your pastor delivers what seems like an unusually poor sermon or you're certain you've heard that sermon before, ask the Holy Spirit to help you find something in the words to inspire, even if it's that the sermon ended.

Pastoral care: This happens every week, and it varies. If Ms. Jones is in hospice and her journey to be with God is imminent, a priest is there. Maybe it's a few hours. Maybe it's every day for two weeks until she dies. I've found that older church members appreciate and expect a clergy visit during illness or hospitalization, while younger members are quite comfortable with a phone call or even a text. People need to talk to a priest, not all of them church members. Marriage and baptism preparation happens regularly in many churches, often in the evening, as most people work. Visits to members who aren't able to attend are vital. And the reality is one person cannot meet the pastoral needs of an entire congregation. Volunteers are so necessary, and I give thanks each day for lay members who respond to God's call in this ministry.

Prayer: I hope every minister has time each day dedicated to prayer. Begin the day, end the day, interrupt the day - spend some time each day praying for those in our care, for our own ministries, for God's guidance. And yet, I hear so many clergy lament the lack of a prayer life. I don't think this is a negotiable for us, any of us.

Office and property manager: This is the one area where I heard more variance than any other. Some churches (less than 15% in most dioceses) have staff to help manager the office and the buildings and grounds. Most depend on volunteers and clergy. Answering phones, cleaning the church, taking out the trash, buying coffee, cleaning the church refrigerator (where everything goes to die, at least in my church), setting up for events, cleaning up after events, and keeping the books all happen at a church. It is, in one aspect, a business with the normal business things. And, at some level, except in the very largest churches, the minister is involved.

The councils of the church: This depends on the denomination and community, but most clergy I know are engaged in the wider life of the church and the wider life of the community, in addition to our own church meetings. We attend meetings at the diocese. We volunteer our skills as chaplains to organizations like police departments and hospitals who cannot afford this ministry. Clergy serve on boards and attend community events. We are innately engaged in the places we live, spreading the Gospel in word and deed by living in the church that exists outside the walls of our own spaces.

Study: Yes, most clergy do attend some type of continuing education, and I also hope we are giving ourselves time each week, even if it's an hour or two, to read, to learn, to expand ourselves. We also work to create and support ways for church members to learn about their faith, to share their questions, and to explore all that is our relationship with God throughout our life. We listen to member needs, explore curricula, and recruit volunteers, among other things. If we're teaching a class, leading a Bible study, or offering a presentation, we need time to prepare. So if you see your pastor sitting in a coffee shop reading James Cone, consider it for the good of the Gospel and your church.

Self-care:  No one can offer what they do not have. If we have allow ourselves to become drained, we cannot do the things we as clergy have vowed to do. We need time to fill up our selves and souls. Yes, a day off helps (and here's where I offer than most full-time clergy I spoke with admitted they rarely get 2 days off a week), but I'm talking here about focused self-care. Regular therapy, physical work outs, attention to nutrition, participation in colleague groups - all those places where we can share our worries, doubts, and fears; where we can get guidance from others; where we can care for this creation of self in a particular way.

And a life: I am not a good priest if I do not have a personal life. I am amazed each week at the depth of love I feel for the people who worship with me and who work with me as we share the Good News. And I need to have a life as simply Laurie that is not part of that, at least on the surface. At least some time of each pastor's week should be spent reconnecting to the person God created us to be underneath the collars and vestments. And while it is similar to self-care, it is also less structured. Doing the laundry, catching up with friends, going on dates, spending a day watching Baywatch (don't judge) - all give my soul time to catch up with my body, and all remind me of how beautifully mundane life is.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list - it's not even complete for me. But it does give laity some idea of what happens on the days between worship. And if you're really curious, just ask. Most clergy would love to share what they do with members.

Over coffee.