Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 11

Here's the text of the letter I wrote to the parish to begin my sabbatical:

Dear Adventers!
Let’s rejoice as we begin a new phase of our lives together in ministry.  I have signed a letter of agreement to take effect July 1, 2016 as Rector of the Church of the Advent!   So much has gone into this moment and I am glad to share with you some of my and the vestry’s deliberations. 

Becoming Rector is the culmination of a long process that began with my coming to serve the parish more than 6 years ago as a long-term supply priest.  Year by year I have carved bits and pieces out of my schedule at the Chapel in Athens until two summers ago when Bishop Wright directed me to make full-time service to Advent as Priest-in-Charge my work in the Diocese of Atlanta.  We hustled to realize that change and I have been serving under a letter of Agreement as Priest-in-Charge that expires at the end of this month of June, 2016. 

When I came on board full-time two years ago the vestry designated the entire month of July as a vacation for me.  That’s when I drove to Yellowstone.  That rest and refreshment was a great gift to me and the ministry we are still sharing.  I have asked the vestry for a similar break to begin this next phase in service with you. Not only do I need the break, I also need some serious and hopeful self-examination and a long overdue health screening, both physical and mental.  My prayer life could stand a return to silence and settled-ness, too. 

I have already addressed some of my physical health matters.  I was proud to have my internist note how much weight I had lost since my last visit, over 35 pounds!  My blood pressure is down to normal levels and my cholesterol numbers are the best they’ve been in years!  I am motivated and already practicing a much healthier diet and activity level.  I believe that another 15 to 20 lbs. needs to go.  When that happens I’m shaving my goatee.  But that is not all I want you to know about me. 

I have had more than one intense emotional demand in the last year.  Notable among them was finishing my divorce.  Many of you know how this process has been prolonged and that it is finally in the judge’s hands is to say the least, long awaited.  In other ways my emotions, self-confidence and attention span have been maxed out.  I am glad to take a deep and long look at my psychological health, at how I form and sustain loving relationships and how I bring to my calling the best of who God has made me to be. 

The image I have is that I have been forcing you all, my friends, my family and so many other good people who have tried to love and support me in these recent months to work with me as if I DIDN’T have one hand tied behind my back.  Sometimes it felt like more than both hands were tied.  And yet I insisted there was little wrong or at least it was something that I could handle.”  That was a formula for disaster and sadly this break will not avoid them all. Worse, I have lost valuable friends, and squelched the support of the very people who tried to love me. 

I need a break because I will not go-all-in” with God and Advent unless I have some comfort, some confidence that I am addressing these shortcomings in an honest, open and finally courageous way.  I will not go-all-in with one hand tied behind my back. 

In order to get to that point of comfort and confidence, I need your prayers and a good therapist who can stay with me and dig deep into the hurt places, the fear, the old angers, wherever there is something binding me, keeping me from being fully engaged, alive and free in my life, my love, my ministry. 

I can’t say much more except that I have already begun that work. I will look forward for the moment when this work is a good and regular habit for me.  This is a longer term re-education of me so that I can live, love and serve with less fear, anxiety, and distraction, with more gratitude, humility and kindness.  I want this for me, for my friends, for us all.  I want to go-all-in because none of us know how much longer any of us have. 

Here’s the agenda for my sabbatical: I will be out of the office this week and as far away as Kanuga between now and July 1.  I am using the time to rest a bunch, to lead a conference, to tie up some loose ends with my house in Athens and to get – in most cases get back – into those disciplines of prayer, study, listening, gratitude and humility that have been a part of my best days up to now. 

I will likely need more time away than what is left in this month.  I may want to visit my daughter in Yellowstone again.  I will definitely need to be in Athens some of the time as the house goes on the market. The vestry has agreed that my being gone as long as September 14th is worth it if it helps me find that sense of balance in life with each other and God. 

I do not believe I will be gone that long.  But that is not my first concern.  My health: physical, spiritual and mental is my first concern.  I want us all to understand that I am not the expert here.  It is my job to be as open to learning, to possibilities, and to deep scrutiny as I can be.

Finally, I want to ask you to pray for me and I want you to join me every day at noon and every night at 9 PM if you can.  Together let’s pray this:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In love,


Peace is the way god means things to be.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 10

I am beginning an impromptu sabbath for self-examination and refreshment.  It is happening as soon as it is because I want to begin my time as rector as promptly as possible and as emotionally, spiritually and physically unencumbered as I can be.

If you have not had a chance to the read the longer letter sent separately, please do that, too. Copies are available in the parish hall.  These statements, along with the continued conversation that I hope you will have with your vestry can provide at least some comfort for the anxious among us.

So let me be direct and simple:
  • I have accepted the call to serve as Rector.  That letter of agreement takes effect July 1, 2016.
  • This is a sabbatical.  A time designated with a beginning and an end for exactly the things I will be doing.  I'll admit it has begun abruptly.  The better news is that it has begun.  The vestry and I have agreed that it can end as late as September 14th.  
  • While I am away you will be well served on Sundays by one of my colleagues in ministry.  If a pastoral emergency arises Allison and your wardens have the contact information for a priest. 
  • I will stay connected:  you can call or text me on my cell 706-206-0750, you can email me at frdann@me.com, you can friend me on FB, you can follow my blog http://oldmiler.blogspot.com, you can read my continuing installments "A few words from the wilderness" in this blog and on our FB page.  
  • I'll be focusing on my health and looking to develop a trustworthy relationship with a counselor exactly because I want to be my best going forward. 
  • I am not the expert for this undertaking.  I want to listen and to learn from lots of sources professional and personal, private and public.  
  • I want you to pray for me and to pray with me everyday at noon and 9pm:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Religion is Connecting: Part 9

Portability.  I scared a bunch of good people last week by using it to describe how I manage to see my calling and my work and my relationships here at Advent.

Portability means I say yes to the call to be rector while at the same time understanding that God may call me to another mission another ministry any second.

Portability means I do my work as I have no other sure chance to do it.

Portability means I am open and honest in relationships and that I love others unconditionally because we may not see each other again.

That principal is built into the ordination rite and is how it works that bishops have seats and deacons are servant ministers and priests get to move around and gather the people so they can look like the body of Christ to each other and to the people around them.

Of the three orders, priests are the ones that should move.  But here is something we overlook or forget:  priests aren't the only ones that move.  The people move, too.

So what portability means is that exactly because parishioners may be gone tomorrow priests who themselves will come and go are tasked in our ordination to lead and model a "going all in" with others we might miss tomorrow.

Holding back from love, relationship, care and celebration because we are temporary inhabitants with each other is to cut in half something that is already shortened by our being human and broken and finite.

Jesus's words at the table were to "take, eat and drink."  Not keep or preserve or measure out but get it now and go.

So let's ALL admit and celebrate OUR portability and let's all go all in with God at the Church of the Advent while we can.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Religion is Connecting: Part 8

I wrote this this morning and have already published a version of it for my parish, Advent Madison. But my heart will not sit still and I am working with lots of stuff from lots of other places in my life.  The underlined pieces are what I've added since this morning and they reflect the continuing influence and learning from those "other places." 

I've had more than one train of thought behind my writing these entries about religion and connecting.  Please allow me to admit one of those to you as having very timely relevance to our life together at Advent.

I’ll start with saying that my membership in the Episcopal Church began and ended at Christ Church in Greenville, S.C.  I have never been a member of another parish in our beloved denomination.  

When a priest is made so by the vows spoken, the laying on of the bishop's hands, the invocation of God's Spirit and the pronouncement and all the years of service that follow, a new way of being connected is established.

Upon my ordination I became "canonically resident" in the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina.  Through the transmission from one bishop to another of "letters dimissory" I have changed residencies twice and am now a priest of the Diocese of Atlanta.  I am not nor have I ever been registered in membership, as baptized or as communicant in any of the 5 locations I have served.  

That's the technical or “regular” part of my connectedness.  There is another part of my connectedness that is highlighted for me by the decision of the vestry to call me as rector.  This peculiar sense of connectedness is ALWAYS with me, always in the back of my mind, always moving through my heart, always framing and directing my work, my calling, my priesthood, my life.  

In a few words this is it: I will always covet permanence but must always honor portability.  

I will always hope to connect and grow into a strength and trust and authority with the people of the parishes and chapels I have served; with you!  I will always hope to be a rector or a chaplain with all the “privileges and responsibilities thereto appertaining.”  

I'm not alone in my aspiration to the vestry’s calling here. Their vote proves that we want that confidence and solidity in our relationship. If nothing else, calling a rector acknowledges the vitality and strength that God has led us into.  We are here by God’s grace.

And we are grateful, indeed we understand that calling in the same way that we understand Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist and Marriage and Confirmation, etc.  

Just like when we say "the gifts of God for the people of God" about the very bread and wine that we have just minutes before placed on the altar, when we call a rector we are calling something to be broken and moved and shared and released into the lives of any who will join the communion with God's people for God's mission.

It sounds like a contradiction but honoring portability is how I protect you and me and perfect the calling to be rector.  Otherwise I’d think of myself and us as done and never risk being vulnerable again.  Otherwise everything can be delayed.

Honoring portability means connecting: by putting my heart into each moment I have now because God may ask me to leave tomorrow.

This is not an easy realization for me.  One of those "other places" is lost into my past now because I failed to honor that very same principle of human connection that portability demands here.  I did not live as if each moment was my last chance and I cannot go back.

Now, I am here and I must honor every moment we have left with the hope that God can still call me to be broken and moved and shared and released to this and other missions with others who are joined in our communion.

So please understand me. I am saying yes to your vestry and to you in response to their hopeful and courageous calling.  I want to be the rector, the one who honors the very portability I vowed to practice January 21, 1994. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Religion is Connecting: Part 7

In an earlier piece about barnacles and their clinging, I wrote about them as examples of connections that were not mutually beneficial to both parties.  I used them as metaphors for being satisfied with merely surviving.

In writing I came close to saying something about addiction and how it is the frequent result of that kind of clinging.  You could just as much say that addiction is the cause.

Early biblical writers criticized the idolators for "clinging to their idols." Jonah 2:8 and Psalm 31:6 but what made the idols idols was they were not the one true God.  So clinging was about the only action available when all you had are idols, substitute gods.

Many of you have heard me say that "addiction is a natural response to a life lived on substitutes." Here's what I mean: when we are seeking some sort of satisfaction, attention, affection, or nourishment; really anything that can be a source of comfort or meaning, anything that will make the pain go away or meet a need we often stop at the next best thing.

And the substitute is never good enough.  It never finally or fully satisfies.  But we know where it can be found.  We can repeat those steps.  And for a minute, a night, a season, a life we can forget our hunger, our hurt, our shame, our weakness, our brokenness.  And when the dose is gone we find another.  In many cases it just gets worse and worse because second best is never good enough.

Sadly this describes so much of our lives, all of our lives and not just the lives of those we can recognize as addicted but also those whose lives have a kind of permission to settle.

Let me propose that it is because we are all addicts of one kind or another.  We are all in some way seeking to satisfy ourselves and ending up with second best answers to the questions and troubles of our lives.

Please don't read me as a cynic or pessimist.  There is still the one true God who has shown a love for us like no other.  Who has done everything we need to break our addictions, to end our clinging, to set us free.

It is worth admitting that not all bear the same blame or responsibility for their addictions.  If you are really hungry and you can't find enough to eat, your addiction is not all your fault.  If you are lonely or ashamed and struggle to find true love you may not even know why.  There are all kinds of reasons our hopes won't always take us all the way.

A really sad thing about this addiction epidemic is that so many of us don't know even we are addicted.  We must think that this second-best-ness of life is the way its supposed to be.  We say things like, "get it while you can."

Why else do we allow greed -- an addiction to the power of money -- and why do we tolerate the rhetoric and behavior of our current political culture except for our own thrilling?  Why do we go from relationship to relationship?  Why do we make church into a place we go and not a people we are called to become?

But in every case where someone has settled or been caught or trapped in an addiction there is a way out and because of what God has done in Jesus' life, death and resurrection that way is with every other person in the world.

Thank God for those fellow addicts who are able to break away even if only for a minute.  Especially when their cries "no more!" wake us up to our own enslavements.  And thank God, especially for the people we love that there is more to life than accepting our second bests.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 6

We are a sacramental people.  We make offerings to God of the stuff in our lives - bread and wine, water, oil, and all sorts and conditions of people.  Then we do this audacious thing of claiming that God has changed those very things we have just presented into something else.

In Holy Eucharist bread and wine become Christ's body and blood; we baptize and a human believer becomes a member of Christ's body, the church; a man and women make their vows to each other and we pronounce them husband and wife.  If nothing else the stuff we present is us. 

The beauty and significance of these and the other sacraments engages us so that we have even expanded the ways in which we make offerings of ourselves and pronounce those vowing as married regardless of their biology.  

Most of what we do when behaving sacramentally relies on an understanding of God and God's grace.  I've already called it audacious but it is also hopeful, honest, risky and intentional.  

We are crazy but faithful when we count on God to make a difference.  But the basic promise "to be with us" that God makes and keeps in the person of Jesus of Nazareth can't be real AND inert at the same time.

So when we are worshipping in baptism, eucharist, confirmation, marriage, ordination, extreme unction and reconciliation we are trusting God and as far as the world can tell foolishly thrusting ourselves into the promise of God's life changing presence.

For many that is enough.  Many of us are glad to be deemed worthy, to receive the elements, to be married, ordained and in the end made right with God.  Even I have presented this series with a title that is also about being connected.

It is worth it for us to consider that the very same condition that makes it so that God's presence changes things -- that Jesus of Nazareth can't be real AND inert at the same time -- should be the automatic next step in our sacramental lives as well.  That is to say that religion is connecting not just being connected.  

Early arguments about the bread and wine once blessed and broken that used a definition like transubstantiation very often left those asking good questions about "what difference it makes" thinking that Holy Communion did more to the bread and wine than it did to those taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing.  

If religion is just as much connecting then our sacramental living is just as much or more doing than being: more offering, blessing, breaking and sharing continuously than mere status changes to be celebrated, certified, and protected.  

So let me revise my title: "Religion is to be Connecting" and let's see what difference it makes. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 5

Church going is loaded with opportunities to connect.  We especially connect to each other.  Each person we see regularly becomes a way for a connection that offers assurance and comfort.

These connections matter so much we even attend to the habits and comforts of those around us.

Think about those Sundays when your friends are NOT in their usual seats.  Or even worse when your friend's seat is taken by someone else.

Our habits: where we sit, with whom we sit, how we come and go are formed as we connect and as we learn to respect and care for those connections.  The formation of our habits is an incremental process that like a feedback loop promotes or not our connections.

Sadly for many of us the process eventually stops and we settle into routines that feel more like surviving than thriving. So it is worth it to consider that some of our connections may be calling us to unfamiliar places and people.

Most of us seldom move outside our "comfort zones" by our own choosing.  Instead we are made to go when something shocks or constrains us to go: the death of a loved one whose seat is then always empty, or in a milder way the change of a liturgical practice.

Remember when the altar was tucked against the wall?  Or think of how many of us are yearning for a return to the kneeling we do outside of the Easter season.

For those who have lived through these sorts of "dis-connections" we all could have a new appreciation for our comfort zones.  We know to enjoy them but we can also learn to trust them as we come and go.  As we grow our comfort zones can change from places to settle and stay and become more like rest stops on a long journey.

Most of you know that I have joked about telling confirmands that as soon as the Bishop lays hands on them they are eligible to pick their permanent seat in church so that God no longer has to go looking for them.  So let's not forget that our connections and their comfort zones may not be easily recognizable as such and may be hard to share with a stranger.

I guess now I need a joke about how trusting AND movement can help our connections and even help our sharing of our comfort zones.

There is one about churchy types taking a friend of another denomination fishing and amazing the friend with what appears to be walking on the water?  Isn't the punchline something about knowing where the rocks are?

That's a start but all of this stuff about comfort and connection really boils down to being intentional about change and adaptation, about trust and vulnerability, and about how the God to whom we hope to connect already knows where the rocks are.