Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Embraces: Part 5

I barely mentioned something important in last week's blurb about hugging.  The intentions of the hugger matter but in and of itself the act of hugging is best when understood and appreciated by the one being hugged.  The hugger needs the permission of the hugged.  

It matters here because I failed to include that the kind of hugging tested gains such benefits as lower blood pressure and increased immune response is hugging that last 20 seconds or longer.  

Why 20 seconds?  There is a language to hugging and in the conversation -- the call and response -- the benefits find purchase, take root.

It makes sense, doesn't it?  Otherwise our "hugging" sinks into idiosyncrasy.  Watch the YouTube videos of that young man hugging police officers.  Their eyes meet and the officers often hug back.  It is brief -- less than 20 seconds in most cases -- but a conversation begins into which we in our watching and sharing are also called.  
I remember Eric Berne's "transactional analysis" of the late 60's.  He charted the way we converse in greeting and more.  What he identified is that most of us prefer to keep our transactions brief and shallow.  If someone answers to "how are you?" with a long discourse on some existential predicament we end up knowing more than we want to know.  1 meets 1, then 2 meets 2, then 3 meets 3.  A 1 met by a 5 mostly means the 5 needs help.    

Just like hugging, conversations -- as embraces graduated through an agreed language -- take time to make a difference and require the consent of both parties to go as deep as they can.  

Sundays and their sermons pass through the same agreement.  Our agreement is that I listen to the conversation that is our lectionary readings, the life of the parish in the days and weeks before, the noise AND message of the world's happiness AND trouble and I hope to speak toward the level God is calling us to inhabit.  

I hope that every Sunday no matter the level the sermon approaches the next words spoken are by all of us in agreement reciting the Nicene Creed.  If we understand that God was first to speak then we also understand that when we say "We believe in God . . . " we are in conversation with the first to embrace us and give us permission to love.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Embraces, Part 4

Lots of different reputable sources (here's one) have reported on the health benefits of hugging.  Surely many of you have seen the online video of the young man giving out free hugs to law enforcement officers on patrol during civil disturbances in cities like Dallas and Ferguson.

Apparently hugging triggers the release of oxytocin in the brain.  The effects are both immediate and residual.  Studies have shown that hugging reduces the chance of illness, lowers blood pressure and minimizes the effects of depression and grief.

The benefits of human hugging are apt metaphors for what God's embrace of us accomplishes in the person of Jesus.  Think of the old hymns like "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine" or "I come to the garden, alone."  Disregarding the overly individualistic language, what happens in both songs is a description of blessing that comes through one's proximity to the person of Jesus.  Good feelings, release from torment or pain, simply are the effects of being embraced.

The meaning of this for us is that embraces -- both the ones we extend to each other and especially the one that God offers -- are confirmed by real experience.  In the case of our experiences with each other the research is fairly conclusive.  In the case of God's embrace of us it is known most assuredly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  That is to say it is incarnated by all that Jesus does and all that God does through him.

Nothing demonstrates God's embrace of humanity more than the realities of the incarnation, its fulfillment and most completely in God's raising Jesus from the dead.  Altogether it says "I am with you,"  "be not afraid,"  "trust me,"  "stay close."  Like one cosmic and eternal hug from God.

There is much for us to learn from this gift of divine embrace and there is just as much for us to do in response.  Perhaps most important is that we hug God back; especially in less than ideal moments and in ways particularly meant to help others recalibrate their embracing.

One caveat: hugging people for no reason may not be the best demonstration of God's embrace.  Duh!  It's just like being overly focused on a bread recipe that will not accomplish all that we hope in making eucharist.  That is to say outward and visible signs beg an inward and spiritual grace, an intention, a purpose, a commitment to be real after the hug and beyond the ceremony.

Where are those near us, like an officer on patrol in a tense environment who need a hug.  When might we step into a difficult moment and demonstrate the commonality of our lives as loved by God so well, so warmly, so fully?  Who among us deserves a "blessed assurance" that they are not outside God's embrace.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Embraces, Part 3

Another way that we embrace each other and live into God's embrace of us to be regular at our practice of embracing.  Like learning how many times on which cheek to kiss someone from France embraces have a language behind them, a set of standards to be observed.  We know that value of these sorts of rules when we break them.  Awkward!

There are also special patterns that help us to know when to embrace in love and when and how to accept an embrace.  We greet each other during the Peace in a way that might not always work at Ingles.

It says something about how important a thing is that we visit it at particular times and on certain days of the week.  When we set aside Sunday's for worship and prayer, for being quiet and being observant, for listening and celebrating we are admitting to ourselves and to the world what our focus finds for us, we are saying something about how we share in and value God's embrace of us.

Not all that we can describe of our regular observances and embraces is wonderful.  Sometimes there's a disconnect between our relationship during the Peace and our relationship at Ingles.  The pattern of greeting can become a kind of hiding place.  We'll go through the motions and hope it doesn't last too long.

But it says something, doesn't it, that we come back Sunday after Sunday and practice a pattern of practicing a pattern. Isn't there an implication of hopefulness?  Isn't there a wishing that things would be "Peaceful" all the time?  For sure nobody comes to church because they get to fake their embraces. Our hope and our hunger for God's embrace get us to return to the time and place and to the practices called for within those moments.

Yes, there are the introverted and shy among us and we are often stretching them beyond their comfort levels.  So the pattern and practice hopes to accommodate an overall need for expression AND restraint.  We want people to "tell the truth" AND we want them to come back next Sunday and do the same.

Returning Sunday after Sunday also helps us to learn the language of God's embrace of us.  It helps us get past the awkwardness of first meetings and new customs.  It helps us to find ourselves being sought out, to find a waiting embrace across the aisle, to find an ease after the awkwardness, and ultimately to find the embrace of God's Peace.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Embraces, Part 2

Last week, I named the three ways that re-entry into the life of a parish after a sabbatical can be characterized.  In short they are: "hit the ground running," "honor what has passed," "accept what's new and emerging."

Each one of these responses have a particular action that in one way or another embraces the new reality.  Whether in seizing the moment, or laying to rest, or announcing the birth, each action institutionalizes the reality and identifies each party's role.

My return -- made unique by the unfortunate events of September 1 -- elicited another set of actions that qualify for the title, "Embraces."  So many people that I cannot count helped with my getting situated in Madison and perhaps even more importantly out of Athens.

From the crew that ripped up carpet, began emptying a garage, repaired a fence, trimmed and edged, swept and mopped to those who saw to the repair of the heat pump and moving of a piano and more; each was an embrace.  And I best not forget the casseroles!

I am humbled by how much was done and how much love came along with the doing.  Humbled.

I am also awakened to a greater truth about our lives together, especially our lives from this point forward.  Our embrace of each other has more to it that an expression of deep and soaring gratitude that I'm back, that my sabbatical goals were met, and especially that my life was spared.  It has in it the rest of each and all of our individual lives.

That is, we have embraced a future with each other.  Especially in how my leaving Athens has been incorporated in the process I see us together saying Madison is the address for our future.  Especially as several parishioners have offered housing options for me to consider.  Especially as I am being asked to consider participation in community fund-raising events.

Yes, I've agreed to try my hands (and feet) at the Boy's and Girl's Club's "Dancing with the Stars." At this point I think prayers are more important than donations.

But more importantly I want to say how much I intend to embrace a life with Advent in Madison that has No More burning a candle "at both ends."

I have done what I had hoped and let go of several encumbrances through my time away.  Now I hope to take hold and sustain my embrace of this new life with you.

This trimmed down, focused, singular view is new to me, new to us.  Let's embrace it as a gift and let it hold us into the future of God's embracing us all.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I read several articles about how to reenter the life of a community at the end of a sabbatical.  All of them, one way or another described a similar set of realities the returnee would likely face.

The first reality mentioned is found in those situations that require immediate attention.  Either something new has just happened or something has been waiting to be noticed by the "right" person -- one bad version is described as festering -- and cannot wait any longer.

A second category are those things that have faded or died while the priest was gone.  The priest was perhaps overly involved and was eventually the main or only reason a particular practice persisted as long as it did.  This often shows up in parts of the worship life of the congregation.

A third category includes those things that were born in the priest's absence.  A new committee is formed, new volunteers step up to serve, or trees are trimmed, for instance.

In each case the returning priest must meet the reality with an embrace.

To the acute health crisis or the festering hurt the priest must say in word and action: I'm here. There is little else the priest must first do.  No magic tricks, for sure.  But also no easy or glib remarks. Instead a new moment of listening to the players and their parts.

Not all crises are immediately evident, some will require the hurt parties to say, "I'm hurt."  But the embrace of the returning priest needs to be ready to reply, "Thanks for waiting, for hanging in there so that we can be together in whatever happens next."

When the new thing is the loss of some previously priest-born reality the embrace is one of a proper farewell.  There may even be mourning but more importantly there needs to be a placement of a marker into the memory of all involved that says "thank you" and that begins an instruction toward whatever may need to come next.

When the new thing is just that, a new thing the embrace is like a baptism where all share in the naming and reception of this emergent necessity.

In every case the embrace of the one returning is important, even necessary and one hopes, life-giving.

So I ask for our first steps forward together to be where we make room, take time, and care for the moments of embrace as each reality requires. I can't wrap my arms and battered ribs around everything at once.

But I'm back, I'm glad to be back and before I can do any new work myself -- work that guarantees our engagement into the future -- I must manage these particular realities and embrace with love as each one calls out to me.  

The important piece in all of this returning is an embrace that we hope reflects our understanding of God's already evident and graceful embrace of each of us. That is how we together can and should move forward, first embraced then sharing that embrace.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Religion is to be Connected: Part 12

I'm still nursing some unfriendly ribs, waiting on new eyeglasses and "picking up pieces" left from the accident.  I hope you all are still holding Shane Robert's family in your prayers.  Our Facebook page has a link to a "gofundme" website that will help with expenses and we hope leave funds to provide for his children in the days to come.  
It is good to be orienting to life in Madison despite the unique pieces. I'm grateful for the work done to advance my exit from the house on Wedgewood.  Here's a pic of the team. 
Thanks to all for the work inside and out! I can wait no longer to be bound to that address. 
Excepting the sad news and related conditions all this recent commotion shouldn't be misunderstood as out of the ordinary. That is to say there is lots of love going around.  Love that was going around before I stepped away in June.  Love that sustained me in prayer all the way to Yellowstone's Bridge Bay Campground. Love that has grown -- has been growing -- into the major part of our lives together.  And so the baked ziti, salads, deviled eggs, pimento cheese are confirmations of a love that leaves me gratefully indebted.  All the sweeping, washing, trimming, hoisting, organizing, are echoes of God's calling to me into the priesthood and more specifically into service as rector of the Church of the Advent. 
We are connected, religiously, in love.  I only wish my ribs were as well connected.  

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.”