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Happy New Year! Being Surrounded with What Works Well

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit. As an incredibly full and complicated 2018 comes to an end, I wander what the new year will bring. People talk about the first thing you see, say, or do setting the tone for the new year. What will the tone of this new year be? As I normally do on the first of each month, when I have time to write, I start off with “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit”; a personal ritual drawn from childhood experiences of saying that to bring a good month. I finger a prayer rope saying the Jesus prayer several times to get centered, to be focused.

One popular meme online these days is people posting “find the word games” saying that the first three things you see tell you about your coming year. Often, they have mostly uplifting words. Sometimes, they have mostly dark words, and recently I saw one that was nothing but “more books” repeated over and over again. Perhaps, I should make one that says nothing but “Peace, Love, Joy”. I think there is something important there. What we surround ourselves with is what we will see. What we see shapes how we think about the world and how we live our lives.

I look to my left and to my right. On my left is a small table. The first thing I notice is the pile of books. These are books I am reading for school along with a couple books I got for Christmas. I see three icons, some Christmas candy, and some clutter. On my right is the Christmas tree, another pile of books, and various pet toys. I’m not sure what is in that pile of books. In front of me is the living room table. A cellphone, a laptop, a book, some candles, and some candy are on the table. What you surround yourself with, is what you see, and what you see, shapes your life. Perhaps part of the new year is putting away stuff you do want to see and looking at other things differently.

I think about this as I look at my Facebook feed. Facebook tries to select posts that will be of interest to you. How you act on Facebook shapes what you see. You Facebook feed can be an interesting mirror to look at. So, what’s in my feed?

The first post is from a woman of color priest. The second is from a female classmate of mine in seminary. The third is from a different woman of color priest. This is followed by an ad for a church, two posts in religious pages, another post by a priest, and then a post by a neighbor. As I scroll down, I find more priests, seminarians, and some coworkers.

I now turn to my reading for school. For my Preparation for Field Ed class, I’m reading Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change by Mark Lau Branson. In the second chapter there is a list of assumptions about Appreciative Inquiry that seems like it could be good Facebook posts for the coming days. The first one says,

“In every organization, something works well.”

It seems like this is a good thing to focus on as we start the new year. What is working well in the organizations you are part of; organizations like your family, neighborhood, church, job, etc?

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An Ember Letter During Finals

It has been three months since I last wrote and Ember letter. During this time, I’ve written a vast amount for school, but very little of it, a mere five blog posts, have been public long-form writing. I am just wrapping up my fourth semester of seminary and have one paper and a few online assignments to go. It has been a challenging time with the deaths of various friends, the physical and spiritual struggles of others, and ongoing financial concerns.

Through all of this, various things have sustained me. The words of Julian of Norwich stay with me, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” They may not always be easy, they may not always be fun, but all is well.

I experience this most profoundly in the circle of friends that surround me, my family, friends at various churches I attend, and especially my seminary classmates. It seems like I am surrounded by so many people who are struggling and at the same time know that all will be well.

Another bright spot over the past semester has been a course I’ve been taking, “Postmodern Christian Education”. It has given me much to think about as I extend the idea of praying without ceasing to also include learning and teaching without ceasing. It has given me frameworks and tools to more fully live into my role as a learner and a teacher.

Theology 1 has been a much greater challenge, perhaps because I’m drawn to asystematic thinking and experiences of the divine that are not limited to Western rationality.

It still feels as if my path is towards the bi-vocational Episcopal priesthood, perhaps in part because I am currently a bi-vocational seminarian at an Episcopal divinity school. Perhaps some of it is because, in my safe New England thinking, the idea of taking a leap of faith to other traditions, locations, and vocations is so challenging. Yet the words of Jesus to the rich man in Luke haunt me. By global standards, I am rich, even though it doesn’t feel that way in the midst of financial struggles.

Recently, friends have suggested I look into a residential Orthodox seminary in Pennsylvania. The logistics of pulling up stakes and moving to a seminary in Pennsylvania has always seemed nearly impossible, perhaps in a manner that selling everything one has and giving to the poor seemed impossible to the rich man in Luke. With my youngest off in college and the flux in the lives of my wife and me, it somehow seems a little less impossible.

Nonetheless, there is something powerful and liberating about being in a place of unknowing and uncertainty. Yet time marches on. In January, I’ll be taking “Prep for Field Ed” and I need to think about where my field ed placement should be. Right now, my dream field education placement would be at a large multi-cultural Episcopal parish that has strong liturgical traditions but still makes space for experimentation and life beyond the four walls of the sanctuary. It would be a parish with a strong practice of caring for the oppressed and marginalized in society. It would be a parish that is involved in ecumenical and inter-faith activities. I’ve also thought about the possibility of doing two years of field education, one year in the Episcopal Church and one year in the Orthodox Church.

On the Sixth Anniversary of Sandy Hook: Seeking an Antidote to Violence

In a couple hours, I’m going to put on my Santa outfit and greet hundreds of kids at the community health center I work at. I’ve been Santa here for several years and it is one of the most important things I do.

One of my other responsibilities is to help with the radio show the health center produces, Conversations on Healthcare. A few weeks ago, our guest was Dr. Leana Wen, the new President of Planned Parenthood. During her interview, she spoke about her efforts as Baltimore’s Health Commissioner to address the epidemic of gun violence. Her words, “Violence is contagious” has stuck with me.

If violence is contagious, what is the antidote? How do we inoculate people against violence? Some of it comes from greeting people with a smile and telling them that they matter. That is what I do when I see children running up to Santa. I tell them I love them. I give them a hug. I don’t ask if they’ve been naughty or nice, that doesn’t seem to be helpful. Instead, I ask them what the nicest thing they’ve done for someone recently is. I keep it positive.

Today as I am greeting kids in Middletown, kids in Newtown are home from school. Some are sad. Some are anxious. On the sixth anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook, students have been sent home after a bomb threat forced the evacuation of the school. I wish I could hug each of those kids and tell them it will be okay.

I wish I could hug the kids who were killed six years ago. There is a special list for those beloved of Santa. It includes: Charlotte, Daniel Barden, Olivia, Josephine, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, Ana, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin, and Allison.

I can only do so much, so I’m asking your help. Please join me in being an antidote to violence. #LoveWins

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An Easy People's Liturgy

We sat around the table and drank a bottle of wine…

We were listening to “Easy People” by The Neilds, but we weren’t actually drinking a bottle of wine. We were playing YouTube Riff Off. My youngest daughter was home from college with a friend and we were playing songs off our cellphones, mostly from YouTube. A person would play a song, and then the next person would play some song that they associated with the previous song, riffing off the previous song.

Perhaps I’ve been too engrossed in my studies, but I looked at us around the table and thought about what I’m reading for Postmodern Christian Education in seminary. Juan M. C. Oliver in Worship-Shaped Life writes,

I cannot overemphasize how dangerous is the failure to incarnate our worship in the local time, place, and culture.

(Oliver, 13)

The YouTube Riff Off felt more incarnated in our local time, place, and culture than many church services I attend. I wondered, how do we make liturgy more like a YouTube Riff Off?

When ritual isn’t tied to local time, place, and culture, it can become highly problematic. Oliver talks about the relationship between ritual and colonialism. It became very easy for Anglicans in British colonies to confuse rituals of the Reign of God with rituals of the British Empire.

I love the rituals of liturgy, and yet Oliver’s warning rang true. How much do we love rituals because they are different, and take us out of our daily lives, and how much do we love rituals because they connect us with something greater? It seems like a good liturgy should do both. However, at times I’ve participated in liturgies that have done neither.

Put another way, liturgy should be about meaning-making, and “meaning-making takes community” (Oliver 19). There was a lot of meaning shared in the songs around the dinner table. Heartbreak, longing, hope.

Haven't I paid my dues by now, don't I get the right to choose?
And I choose you to take up all of my time
I choose you because you're funny and kind
I want easy people from now on

As we played our music, I thought back to times when I had first heard the songs; times with friends in college, times with my children when they were little. There is something very liturgical there. Some of the church services that I find most moving are those that connect me to saints throughout the ages. Oliver talks about the importance of things “older and greater than us, and outlasting us.” (Oliver 11) Thursday was All Saints day, so I feel particularly focused on the great cloud of witnesses of the Christian faith over the centuries right now. I think about this during various church services. Am I getting a sense of a timeless tradition being incarnate in my local time, space, and culture? I love it when I do get that sense, praying in an old monastery with walls soaked in prayers of generations of monks, praying in a church using language, images, sounds, and smells that have accompanied the saints for ages.

So now, as Oliver suggests, I am reflecting on last night’s secular ritual of YouTube Riff Off as I prepare for todays ritual of Eucharist. (Oliver, 20). May the timeless be as locally and culturally incarnate in todays worship as it was in last night’s gathering.

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