Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Thursday, January 22, 2015

What Do Hospice Chaplains Do?

--> Note: I developed the following as a handout to leave with Hospice patients and families after my initial visit. I thought, perhaps, you might be interested in the answer to this question, too. And, I wondered: If you were challenged to develop a one page paper that describes the ministry you do - laity or ordained, in or outside of the church - what would that look like? 

What do Hospice Chaplains do?

The answer to that question may be different than you think.

Hospice Chaplains work as part of a holistic team that cares for your body, mind and spirit.

Chaplains work with skilled nurses, social workers and CNAs to provide you with quality holistic care.

We honor your spirituality and/or faith tradition, if you have one.

Chaplains don’t take the place of your spiritual leader, your pastor, minister, priest, rabbi, or imam. Chaplains also serve those who don’t have a spiritual leader or a faith community.

Whether you are a patient or a family member, Hospice Chaplains:

           Walk with you on this journey of hospice.

Help you determine if you’re anxious about or afraid of anything . . . and we help you work through those anxieties or fears.

Learn from you and try to help you find peace.

Honor and help you better understand what YOU believe – not what the chaplain believes.

Work alongside any spiritual leader you have, because chaplains and pastors have different roles. If you haven’t been in contact with them, we will contact them for you, if you like.

Help you with difficult conversations and tough decisions.

Assist in funeral preparations and officiate at funerals, if you want.

Help you connect or reconnect with others.

Listen to your life story and, if you’d like, share some stories of faith from sacred writings.

If you wish, we do pray with you and for you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hospice Lesson #3: Catfish and Whisky

He'll be 100 years old in March, but no one believes that he'll make the party, even the birthday boy, himself.

The past six months have been a pretty rough patch for him.

He says he's ready to go "back home".

"Anytime now."

His adult children tearfully nod their heads in agreement.  "We hate to see you go, Pop," they say, "But you have fought the good fight. Time to think about quality of life and not quantity."

"Well," he chuckled, "the way I see it, we passed that exit about ten years ago."

"Where's 'home?'" I ask. The twinkle in his eye told me he knew exactly what I meant.

"I grew up in a little town in Iowa. Mississippi River flows right through it. In front of my house, maybe quarter of a mile, maybe less, runs a Creek. "

"When I was a boy, " he said, clearing his throat and propping himself up on his pillow the way one does when a story is about to be told, "I could go swimming in that creek whenever I wanted. The boys would come over and we'd take off our clothes and jump right in. Naked as the day we was born. We we was done, we sat out on the rocks behind the trees and let the sun dry us off.  Then, we'd put our clothes back on and g'won about our business. Maybe come back later that night."

"We didn't have much in the way of money. Sometime, times was hard. Real hard. I don't know if you've ever heard the sound of your own belly grumblin' for food, or tasted how an empty belly tastes in your mouth, but I made sure none of my kids would ever know that. And, they didn't."

His adult children, standing at the doorway to his bedroom, nodded their heads as they sniffled.

"Were there fish in that Creek?"

"Yes, ma'am. Catfish. Plenty of 'em."

"We used to catch 'em for supper. Mamma and Daddy would leave out a skillet and a pan of bacon grease. We'd light a fire, right there on the bank of the Creek. One of the boys would pull some Iowa potatoes right out of Daddy's garden and we'd set them to boiling in a pot of Creek water.".

"Never took more than 15 minutes to catch a good sized Catfish.  Even on a bad day. One of the boys would clean up and filet that fish, drag it through some corn meal and plop it straight into that skillet just poppin' with bacon grease."

He paused and closed his eyes for a moment, smiling at the memory.

"We'd take it out when it was all golden brown and put it on one of the rocks to cool a bit, then slice up the potatoes and fry them in the bacon grease.  Then, we'd put the fish back in the skillet and everyone would serve themselves."

"Lord, lord, lord," he said, his eyes closed and a huge newborn smile on his ancient face.

"And then, if we was lucky, one of us would be able to bring George Dickel to join us."

You know I had to bite - quicker than one of those catfish in the Creek.

"George Dickel?"

"Okay, son. Tell her about Ole George Dickel," he said.

"White corn mash Tennessee whisky. No 'e' in the whisky. Not for Old George Dickel. Whisky. Just the way the Scots did."

"Mellow as moonlight," he said, his eyes closed and that same huge smile on his face that now had many more layers of meaning.

"Pop," said his daughter, "would you like me to fry you up some catfish and potatoes tonight?"

"I'll make sure George Dickel gets invited," added his son.

He opened his eyes, smiled at me and said, "I got two top shelf kids, don't I?"

I smiled and nodded and said, "It would appear so."

"No, kids," he said, "that's alright. Although, son, if you offered me a sip or two of Mr. Dickel's mash, I wouldn't turn it down."

"I have a feeling," I said, "that before long, you'll be able to sit out on those rocks by the side of the Creek, naked as the day you were born, and enjoy as much fried catfish and Mr. Dickel's mash as your heart desires."

"Yes," he said, "It's time to go back home."

"Anytime now."

Hospice Lesson learned:

You don't have to talk specifically about God or heaven to talk about God or heaven.

Sometimes, catfish and whisky will do just fine.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

God and Country

It is my privilege and honor to officiate, occasionally,  at the funerals of my patients.

It is an incredible opportunity to use the stellar liturgy and prayers of our Book of Common Prayer for pastoral care as well as evangelism.

I can't tell you how many times someone will come up to me, after the service, and say, "What denomination did you say you were with? The Episcopal Church? You know, I've been meaning to get back to church. I think this service gave me the kick in the butt I need to get myself to The Episcopal Church in my neighborhood. "

And, I've actually seen them there. When that happens, I have to tell you, it just makes my heart sing.

The most profound services at which I've been privileged to preside are the Military Funerals at the local Delaware Veteran's Memorial Cemetery 

I'm told that it was one of the last Veteran's Cemeteries built which includes a chapel. It's lovely, actually, in a stark, military kinda way. I love that one of the walls is all glass, which faces the Monument  to Fallen Heroes outdoors. As the gun salute happens outside, along with the bugler playing taps, everyone can see and hear it.

And, can I just say that the Air Force does the absolute BEST job? Bar none. Second is a tie between the Marines and the Navy. Alas, the Army does hold its own, but it's simply not the same.

The Air Force always - always - sends eight Very Young Men. Six to bring in the casket, three of whom also give the rifle salute. One is the bugler - I mean, he really, actually plays taps, unlike the AmVets who have a "trumpet" that has a recorded version of the taps one plays by pushing down one of the valves on the "trumpet". And one is sort of the "Master of Ceremonies".

It's really impressive.

The Navy and Marines send young guys, too. Generally, four. In uniform.  So handsome. So polite. So heartbreakingly young and dedicated and who make me so glad I'll never see my 20s again.

The Army generally sends four Really Old Guys from the local AmVets or VFW who really, really care about what they are doing and do it with lots of heart and dignity and respect.

There is something . . . oh, what's the word . . .  impressive . . . about the priest, in cassock, surplice, tippet and hood, greeting the casket at the door, covered in the American Flag, which they pull back just a bit to allow me to sprinkle the casket with Holy Water.

And then, there's the slow, silent, solemn procession down the long, lonely hallway into the chapel. Led by the priest, followed by the casket borne by the men in uniform, and accompanied by family and friends, it is, in its way, deeply emotional.

Each branch of the military has its own unique but highly stylized way of doing things - from the way it marches, to the head and hand motions, to he way it folds the flag. I have found the Air Force to be most rigid and stylized, even to the way they bow or raise their heads or fold the flag.

Freud had a word for it: Phallic.

Mind you, I am not a fan of the military. I don't like war, but I can't claim to be a pacifist. I'm afraid I don't have quite enough courage for that. I do have great disdain for the invocation of God's approval on the naming and killing of one's enemy "for God and country".

Indeed, I'm quite sure God weeps when we kill each other in God's name. 

However, when it comes to the burial of one who was willing to lay his or her life down, not only for strangers but for the cause of "liberty and freedom for all", well, I think God is there.

As the re-presentative of God's church, it is a privilege to be there at the time of burial.

There is something deeply spiritual about the playing of Taps.
Fading light
Falling night
Trumpet call, as the sun, sinks in flight
Sleep in peace, comrades dear,
God is near.
Of course, it was originally meant to signify the end of the day of the soldier's work. It takes on deeper meaning when that soldier had died, and his work is finally done.

I'm not really certain how to explain what I feel when I'm asked to preside at one of these services. They are brief, not able to last more than 20 minutes according to the regulations of the Delaware Veterans Memorial Cemetery. That's actually 10 minutes longer than the service allowed at Arlington National Cemetery.

There's hardly enough time to read the Service of Committal, say (or sing, as I prefer) the In Paradesum, pray for those who are grieving and give a final blessing.

The military activities - folding the flag, the rifle salute, taps, the presentation of the folded flag and empty shells to the widow or family members - take more time than that.

It's the blending of the two, I think, that makes it so powerful. Two opposites, at least in my mind.

Which remind me that, taken to similar extremes, can do similar damage.

Which means that I have to admit, both are capable of similar good.

I was recently at the funeral of a clergy colleague who died rather suddenly. At the end of the service, the clergy were asked to form a line along the pews as the casket was borne from the church.

It was very powerful. 

I could hear Taps being played in my mind.

I know it sounds silly, but it helps to explain that lump in my throat every time I preside at one of these services. Especially whenever I hear Taps.

I find comfort in the words attributed to a former Archbishop of Canterbury who said,
"When we choose foolishly, God still reigns. And, when we choose wisely, God still reigns."
I believe he ended his statement calling us all to remain steadfast, therefore, in our faith.

In the face of all the military pomp and circumstance of flag folding and rifle shots, and in my role as presider of it all, it helps to remember that. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Bishop and the Cyclist, Part II: Anti-social Social Media

The charges have finally been made.

The Rt. Rev'd Heather Cook, 58 year old Bishop Suffragan of The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, has been charged with manslaughter for allegedly driving drunk and sending text messages when she struck and killed cyclist Thomas Palermo last month.

She faces numerous other charges, including leaving the scene of the fatal accident in North Roland Park and driving under the influence. Both the manslaughter and leaving the scene charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said that Cook's breath alcohol level was 0.22 percent, nearly triple the legal limit in Maryland, and that she was text-messaging at the time of the collision.

Bishop Cook's booking picture
She was taken into custody on Friday afternoon, her bail set at $2.5 million and she was to spend the weekend at the Baltimore City Jail, women's division.

I can tell you from personal experience visiting people there that the place, BCJ, is something akin to the second circle of Dante's Inferno, where those "souls are blown back and forth by the terrible winds of a violent storm, without rest".

It has to be one of the noisiest places in the universe, a constant howl and growl of women's wailing and cursing and cussing, to the steady beat of banging and clanging. It sounds like that no matter what hour of the day or night I've happened to be there.

Social media has been lit up like New York City during the holidays with constant chatter about what "should" happen now. What she "should" say. What she "should" do. IMMEDIATELY.

Even how she "should" pray and what she "should" pray for.

And, here I thought it was bad when the news first broke, before she was charged.

Indeed, the amount of "shoulding" has been fairly amazing, and from otherwise fairly intelligent and well educated sources who seem oblivious to the fact that "shoulding" on someone only makes the person who is "shoulding" seem worse than the person who is the object of the "should".

As my grandmother used to say, "Whenever you try to make someone else look bad, you never make yourself look good. " And, she was absolutely right.

Predictably, the drum beat which started even before the facts were known and the charges were made, which call for accountability - and change - of the "vetting process" that allowed her to be elected has also increased at various sites on the internet.

As if that might have prevented this - or any other future - tragedy.

Maybe it could have. Maybe not.

There is no "crystal ball". Addiction recovery is not an exact science. And "forgiveness" and "unconditional love" alone do not cure it. They are part of recovery, certainly. But, not the cure.

Which, I hasten to add, ought not exclude alcoholics in recovery from ordination to the diaconate or priesthood or consecration to the episcopacy. We might want to get a little smarter and turn to Addiction Recovery experts regarding some advice on time lines and - I hate to use the word - 'profile' of what someone in "good recovery" looks like.

At any rate, focusing in on the "diocesan vetting process" is a fairly convenient - and, in fact, pretty transparent - place to hang all the raw emotion - the shock, anger, sense of betrayal, embarrassment - which this incident has surfaced.

It's a safe, even respectable, place to be, a place where you can even shout, "THE BISHOP IS FORGIVEN" and then attack her by attacking the process by which we elect leaders in the church. And then attack the people who say privately, "Psssst! Do you see what you're doing?"

Another place is social media: Facebook, Twitter, the comment section on blogs, etc. It has become what I call, "The Wild, Wild West." There's a shoot-em-up-bang-bang every time you turn around - especially on one site called, "Episcopalians On FaceBook. (EOFB)"

And, that's when there isn't a controversial incident.

Some of those folks can get worked up into a white hot lather about the most mundane things - like whether or not we should kneel or stand at the communion rail. We're not "catholic" someone will huff - they STAND for communion. And, off it goes until one of the six beleaguered, blessed "administrators" steps in and tries to calm everyone down, sometimes having to remove the entire thread before the pitch forks and torches come out and a lynching mob begins to form.

Seriously. There have been some good discussions over there, but it is not for the faint of heart.

The former bishop of NY was quoted in the NY Times and has been roundly condemned for asking of his critics, "Who are these people?" I can't even begin to tell you the number of times I have read something on EOFB, scratched my head, and asked the same question.

Yes, yes, and yes: Social Media can be used as a force for good. As a vehicle of social change. I agree. I'm limiting my remarks in this post to the bad stuff that can happen there, too. Which, I hope, will be a vehicle for some social changes for the good.

On my blog post, "The Bishop and the Cyclist", there have been over 35,000 visits to date since I first posted it on 12/31. And, there have been almost 130 comments left. I've deleted over 20 of them. I had to. They were surpassing mean and hateful - about the bishop. Oh, and moi.

See? I am obviously using the baptismal covenant to try to "suppress the truth" - or at least stop conversation which would lead to The Truth" - and "circle the wagons" to "protect Mother Church" and "cover the church's ass" of any culpability in this horrible tragedy.

As if.

These folks wave around the banners of "The Truth" and "Honesty" in much the same way some of the members of the Tea Party use the First Amendment.

Except they can spell.

As one dear friend once said to me, "You have the absolute right to wave your arms around as wildly as you wish, but that right stops at the end of my nose."

Sure, you have the right to vent your spleen and say whatever you wish to say about whatever topic you wish to spew . . . er, comment.  However, if I say, "Not here. Not on my FB page. Not in my blog comment section," then that's the end of that, folks.

Continue and I either hit "delete" or "spam" and, if you persist, "block".

I admit to laughing out loud, full throat, when a few folk commented to complain that I didn't post their comment which was filled with hateful stuff toward the bishop and/or me.  I mean, after all, they took time out of their day that they will never get back just to tell me how wrong/stupid/hateful I am and how I'm telling everyone not to judge except, see? you're judging me, you hypocrite! 

Sweet Baby Jesus and all the angels that rock Him to sleep at night!  Doesn't that just make you laugh right out loud and slap your thigh while you're doing it? I mean, there's no mistaking the indignation. You won't print my nasty-ass comment?! How dare you?! Ha!

Somebody's mama raised them much better than that, I'm sure. And, they've had a fairly decent education. They've just lost their minds in all of the emotion and/or drama of the moment, is what.

A while back, I tried to explain to a group of Episcopalians that, when we are hurting or in emotional pain, we often react vs. respond. Scientists call this "reptilian brain".

It's the part of the brain that instinctively reacts to protect and survive. Because it is an automatic response, we don’t even need to think before we act to protect our self when we feel threatened or injured. We "snap". We "bite".

I was trying to suggest to folks that a lot of what we were seeing was "reptilian brain" activity and that we all needed to take a breath, step back, reassess and move our responses up to the neocortex where actual thinking takes place.

Well!!! Some of them are still spewing over that! Good Christian folks, dragging information from one FB site to another like a piece of raw meat to where it's "safe" to have others ridicule it and laugh and take their own bite out of it.

Is this a good thing? I mean, having places on the internet to spew and vent and snap and bite?

I suppose it has its place and function.

I understand Starbucks has an online board where employees can say whatever they want about Starbucks policies without fear of retribution.

Right. Okay.

You'll forgive me, but I'm just not buying it. I think it is only the fool who believes that whatever she or he prints on Social Media will not come back one day to bite them in the arse. Even on so-called "closed sites" where it is supposedly "safe".

People, people, people: Listen up.  Safety - especially on the internet - is an illusion.

There is no "safe space" - not in too many places but especially on the internet.

There are only the limits you put on yourself and others in terms of what you will tolerate.

Or, as Frederick Douglass once said, "The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."

And, don't even get me started when privileged, well educated, affluent, straight white folk start talking about how they feel "oppressed" because they are being called into account and being asked to get a grip and watch what they say and how they say it. Please!

So, The Episcopal Women's Caucus FaceBook Page is trying a little experiment. We have developed a "Comment Code of Conduct"which has been adapted from the Sojourner Community.

I think it's pretty good, actually. It's based in scripture and is not a demand but rather a suggested way to think before one formulates a response (vs. a reaction).  It's pinned on the FB page so it's the first thing you see. Here it is:
I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of this online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree—even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will not engage in spreading unfounded information/rumors by commenting about anyone who is in involved in alleged legal matters until such time as as all the facts are in and all the involved parties have spoken on the record." (James 3:1-18)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by the Administrators and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)
So, there's an expressed expectation of certain behaviors which folks are asked to consider and consequences if there are serious, repeated abuses.

The downside is, if you're not a practicing Christian or a person of faith, this has very little meaning. In fact, those folk feel that they can absolutely ignore it. Then again, so can some practicing Christians. Le sigh.

It's very much a work in process and it will be amended as we progress. I've had this Code on the Comment Section of my Blog for awhile now. Truth be told, it usually only helps after the fact. I simply remind people of the Code and don't think twice when I send their repeated abusive comments to the spam bin and block them from further comments.

My sense is, we've got to start somewhere, with some expectations for behavior and decorum.  I mean, we are Anglicans, after all.

Right now, The Episcopal Church has suffered a terrible body blow, which has come, as body blows often do, at time when we're feeling most vulnerable and, in fact, embarrassed.

Just a few months ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury was widely quoted as saying that "There is a possibility that the Anglican Communion will not hold together." Meanwhile, Pope Francis is running around the globe spreading sunshine, lollipops and roses and Roman Catholics (who admittedly deserve a bit of a break) are slapping themselves on the back and even some Episcopalians are saying what we need in a new PB is a Francis. (Male, of course. More "catholic", no doubt. Who cares if he doesn't actually change anything? Just make us feel good about ourselves again.)

Then, there's the whole implosion going on at two of our Episcopal Seminaries and, perhaps, others that are going on more quietly. The seemingly hamfisted administration and bumbling faculty at General Theological Seminary has become nothing less than a huge international embarrassment.

And now, this. THIS! This is a journalistic trifecta: (1) An Episcopal woman bishop. (2) Drinking and texting and leaving the scene of the accident (A WOMAN BISHOP, for God's sake). And, (3) The vehicular manslaughter of a young father of small children.

No wonder our heads are exploding.

So, here I am. Back again. Biretta in hand. Asking us all to reconsider our Five Baptismal Promises.  As the days and weeks roll on and the headlines trickle in as this tragedy continues to unfold - "Bishop released on bail."  "Bishop resigns." "Bishop defrocked". "Anniversary Memorial Run for Slain Cyclist". "Trial date set for Bishop in Cyclist Hit and Run". "Former Bishop Sentenced" - it will be even more important to remember what we promised at Baptism:
Celebrant     Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and 
                    fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the 
People         I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant    Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever 
                    you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People         I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant   Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
                   News of God in Christ?
People        I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
                  your neighbor as yourself?
People       I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant   Will you strive for justice and peace among all 
                  people, and respect the dignity of every human 
People       I will, with God’s help.
It's important to remember that these are pretty difficult, very serious promises.

Which is why it's even more important to remember that we can only do them with God's help.

If you can't remember all that, please try to remember this:
Be kind. And, if you can't be kind, please be quiet.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Lessons in Hospice #3: One thin dime

Some of you may remember the Hospice patient I wrote about recently. A 92 year old retired pastor in the Assemblies of God Church, he is wise and spirit filled and committed to teaching what he considers this "young pup" so she will learn more about how to be a good pastor.

I am such a grateful student.

I went to see him on Christmas Eve. His family says he is sleeping more and more and eating less and less. He is fragile and pale and looking increasingly gaunt. He has a catheter in his bladder now because it's hard for him to get out of bed and sometimes too weak to use the urinal. He's off almost all his meds, all except the one for pain. He's gone from taking morphine every 4-6 hours to every 3-4 hours during the day. That and a sleeping pill at night hold him mostly until morning.

He said to me, "I just can't wait to be with Jesus. I love him so much. With all my heart and soul and mind and strength. Yes, yes, child, I love Jesus. And, I know you do, too. Your love is strong. I can see that. So is mine. I keep lifting my arms up for him to take me home. He just hasn't yet. He will, but not yet. I guess he's got more for me to do here. So, why don't we pray and you give me communion, we'll pray some more and I'll bless you and then I have a story to tell you."

And, that's exactly what we did. I know what's good for me.

I have to tell you again that it is quite an amazing thing to witness this man have an ecstatic experience during and immediately after communion.

In the midst of it, he stretched out his hands and blessed me. I didn't understand half of what he was saying but there was no doubt in my mind that I was being mightily blessed from the very depths of this man's heart and soul.

Have I mentioned before how much I love my job?

Anyway, after he had some sips of water and rested a bit, he took a deep sigh and then said, "And now, I want to tell you about the importance of little things. Little insignificant things. Things that don't seem to have much value but they can repair a relationship and save a life. I want to tell you about one thin dime."

He talked about his oldest son, his first born, the one named after him, the one he now lives with.

He talked about the time that his son's wife left him. After a year of marriage, right after high school. For no apparent reason. Just packed her bags, waited at the kitchen table with a casserole in the oven, the house clean and the laundry done until he came home from work.

Said she didn't want to be married anymore. Said there was no one else, there just wasn't anything left of her. Said she had lost herself in everything everyone expected of her which she couldn't do. Especially not have babies. Lord, no, she said. She didn't want any babies. Not now. Maybe not ever.

And, she needed to find herself. Nothing personal on him. Just very personal for her.

And, just like that, she was gone.

His son was brokenhearted. His heart just flat out broke, is what. He cried for what his father said must have been two weeks. Straight. Day and night. Night and day. Didn't eat. Didn't drink. Just cried his heart out from his bed or sofa.

And then, his father said, his son lost his mind.

He picked himself up of the couch and said to his father, "I have to leave. I don't know where I'm going or when I'll be back. I just got to go."

So his father said, "What could I do? The boy had to go. He had to put himself back together. He had to heal himself. I couldn't do it. That was more medicine than I had in me. He had to go out into the wilderness, battle his demons and pray for the angels to find him and rescue him."

Which, apparently, he did.

One particularly fierce battle with those demons happened on the train tracks just outside of Los Angeles, California.

His son, his first born son, decided that the only way to end his pain was to stand in front of an oncoming train. He figured it would be fast and he'd be dead before he knew what hit him.

It would be, he thought, a mercy.

At this point in the story, my patient asked that the head of his bed be raised so he could see me better. After I adjusted his pillows and gave him a sip of water, he cleared his throat and continued.

He said that, as he was waiting for the train, he heard a voice say, clear as a bell, "Look inside your wallet." He thought it might be the voice of God, telling him to get out his wallet so his body could be identified after his death.

And then, his son told his father that he swore he heard the voice say, "Remember the one thin dime."

And that's when he remembered that, at his graduation from high school, his father gave him one thin dime and said,
"Put this in your wallet and keep it there. It's not much but it will give you one phone call to make if you are ever in any trouble. It will remind you that, if you ever question who you are, you can always call the one who gave you your life and your name, that you are always mine and I am always yours. It will remind you that you can always call me and, no matter where you are or what you've done, I will come and get you.  It may not be worth much, but what it represents is worth everything in the whole world. It represents unconditional love."
And, in that moment, his son picked himself up from the tracks and walked the short distance to the train station. He picked up the pay phone, put in the dime, and made a collect call to his father.

"Daddy," he said, "this is your son. Your prodigal son. I just used the one thin dime you gave me. And so I'm calling you, just like you said to do. Daddy, I want to come home. Can I come home now? I think I'm going to be okay if I can just come home."

"And so, he came home," he said, "My son came home to his prodigal father. I called an old pastor friend of mine who lived right outside of LA. He came right to the train station and picked up my boy. He and his wife fed him. Said he ate like he hadn't seen a good plate of food in years. He'd been gone a little over a year, so who knows what he had or hadn't eaten in that time."

He sighed, cleared his throat and continued,  "He stayed with them about a week and then we got some money for a bus ticket home. He was pretty wore out when he got home - looked very thin and his mother liked to have a heart attack when she saw him - but by the next week he had a job and the next year he met the woman he's now married to and they've been happy together ever since."

"One thin dime," he said, shaking his head in continued amazement. "Just one thin dime."

Then, he reached into the pocket of his pajama shirt and pulled out a thin dime, breathed on it, polished it a bit on his blanket, and gave it to me. "Here," he said, "put this in your wallet. I know you can't make a phone call with it. Ain't no phone booths in too many places these days, anyhow."

"But, I want you to keep it and if you're ever feeling poorly, like your ministry don't matter to none but Jesus and you wonder why you keep at it when you could be making more money doing something else and none of it seems worth it any how or any way, at that time, you just take out this dime and hold it in your hand. And know that once there was an old, dying man who loved Jesus very much and saw the love of Jesus in your heart, too."

"Know that you ministered to this poor old raggedy, full of cancer minister and let him minister to you and you helped him to feel worthwhile and useful and purposeful again."

So, of course I  got all girly-burbly and when I opened my mouth nothing came out but "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

At least, that's what I thought I was saying.

I'm not sure, but I just might have had an ecstatic moment there myself.

One thin dime.  That's all. Just one thin dime.

It's not so much about the dime, you see. It's about the importance of little things. Little insignificant things. Things that don't seem to have much value but they can repair a relationship and save a life. It may not be worth much, but what it represents is worth everything in the whole world. It represents unconditional love.

I haven't looked at a dime in a long time, have you? Used to when I was a kid. Saved them up like silver treasure. Loved the sound of them as they "plunked" into my piggy bank. I don't have much use for dimes - or pennies or nickles or quarters - anymore.

Mostly, I use my debit card. And now, sometimes, my iPhone.

When I got into my car, I looked at that dime more closely. Guess what I rediscovered?

On the back of the dime it says, "E Pluribus Unum" - "Out of many, one."

On the front of the dime it says, "In God We Trust."

I'll remember all those things every time I look into my wallet and see that one thin dime.  Mostly, it will remind me that there is One who gave me life and knows my name and that I am a beloved if not prodigal daughter of One who loves me unconditionally and lavishly and wastefully.

It will remind me that I can always call on In-God-I-Trust and, no matter where I am or what I've done, God will send someone to rescue me from myself.  Probably Jesus in the guise of the Christ who lives in each one of us. But it will be no less than one of God's angels, as we all are for each other from time to time.

Sometimes, especially when we don't think we need it, the Spirit has already heard the sighs of our heart which are too deep for human understanding and sends an angel of mercy.

Like this 92 year old man was for me.

E pluribus unum.

It may not be worth much, but what it represents is worth everything in the whole world.

It represents unconditional love.

Just one thin dime.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The bishop and the cyclist

 I must say that Monday morning's news provided a very rude awakening.

The Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, one Heather Cook, was said to have been the driver of the car which killed a bicyclist in the Roland Park section of Baltimore, MD on Saturday afternoon.

The deceased man, Tom Palermo, a 41 year old married father of two young children, was an avid cyclist, apparently out for a mid afternoon 'recreational ride'.

Apparently, the bishop left the scene of the accident - some say for 20 minutes, others say 45 minutes - but did return to "take responsibility for her actions."

Some reports say her car was weaving in traffic before she hit the cyclist. Other reports say she was texting. Still other reports say that the only reason she returned to the accident was because several other cyclists followed her to her home.

In 2010, while working as a priest for the Bishop of Easton, MD, Bishop Cook was charged with a DUI, her Breathalyzer test was .27 (legal limit in Maryland is .08) and she had drug paraphernalia in the car. She received "probation before judgment," went to rehab and eventually returned to work.

She was vigorously and fully vetted by the Diocese of Maryland before she was elected. 

Thus far, there is absolutely no reported evidence of alcohol or drug use by the bishop in this fatality.

Let me say that again: Thus far, there is absolutely no reported evidence of alcohol or drug use by the bishop in this fatality. There may be evidence to the contrary, but so far, nothing has been reported. The investigation is on-going, including blood analysis and computer generated reconstruction of the accident.

I say that because as stunning as this news story is, I have been absolutely sickened by the comments left on social media sites. By Episcopalians. Who are Christian.  Laity and ordained.

The conjecture and supposition, presumption and assumption - not to mention abundant evidence of very active imaginations - have been second only to the mean-spirit in which they are written.

It also doesn't help that the picture of Bishop Cook that is making its way around the internet is the one at her consecration, where she is at the altar in front of many carafes of wine.

Le sigh. 

Years ago, a woman in recovery and I were discussing sexism in the church and she said, "Honey, I have no doubt that you've had a rough time as a woman in this church, but you haven't seen the ugly side of sexism and misogyny until you've seen how women who are alcoholic are treated - even in 12-Step Programs. Men who are drunks are seen as pathetic people who need shelter and some help. Women who are drunks are disgusting, are shown no mercy and sent to jail."

I've thought of that conversation often as I've read headlines which scream things like, "First Woman Bishop Kills Doting Father of Two." And, "Bishop with previous DUI kills Cyclist."

Misogyny coupled with anti-clericalism is a pretty ugly sight to behold, no matter how subtle.

It's been simply awful. All of it. All.Of.It.

So, let us be very clear here:

Leaving the scene of an accident is a felony. 


Whatever else she did or didn't do, she has admitted to leaving the scene of an accident. Doesn't matter that she returned. She left. She is already a felon awaiting conviction. 

Whether or not she will also be charged and convicted with vehicular homicide (pending the results of the investigation), she was directly involved with the death of a young man with young children. 

Nothing changes that. 

She will have to live with that fact for the rest of her life. If your imagination needs some exercise, try to imagine that for yourself.

The record reflects that, since her ordination in 1987, she has been a good priest with lots of skills and talents, creativity and imagination - good enough to be elected as Bishop Suffragan despite being thoroughly and vigorously vetted by the diocese.

I can't imagine the personal, spiritual and psychological hell she (and her family) must be going through, knowing that her actions resulted in the death of another human being (My God!), knowing she's probably going to go to jail (Sweet Jesus!), will probably be asked to resign as bishop and just may, in fact, lose her orders (Come, Holy Spirit!).

I also can't imagine the unbearable grief the deceased man's family must be feeling. I hope and pray they are getting the spiritual, emotional and psychological support they need at this time. 

My prayers are with the Palermo family - including a wife and two children - as well as prayers for compassion for Bishop Cook, which must be provided side by side with accountability and forgiveness. 

Now - right now, in these dark days - is time for the community to gather and rally and provide help and support for both of these families, for whom - in the twinkling of an eye and the gentle beat of the human heart - life was changed and transformed and will never again be the same. 

It's just so tragic, on so many levels, for so many people. 

No one comes out a winner in these situations.

So, why the mean-spirit and conjecture and 'trial by media'?

 I don't get it.

Not for Christians. 

Not for Episcopalians.

What a huge test of our baptismal promises - especially "striving for justice AND peace among ALL people" and "respecting the dignity of EVERY human being" - which includes the deceased and the bishop. 

Suddenly, those promises don't sound quite so rote or simple, do they?

And, the Anglican Via Media (Middle Way) seems a dangerous place to be, doesn't it? There you are, right out there in the middle of the road.  Neither left nor right, passenger or passing, nor in the cyclist lane. Nope. Right smack in the middle.

In the days and weeks ahead, as evidence is examined and the slow, creaking wheels of the justice system work their way to find The Truth and judgement is rendered, let us strive to keep in mind our baptismal vows. 

Because, the truth is, it is for times such as these that they were written.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Preaching from a prepared heart.

I'm not going to even try to reprint my Christmas Day sermon here, which I preached from the center aisle without a single note in front of me.  I talked about angels I have heard on . . . um, low  . . . who still sang "Gloria" in the very presence of The Incarnation.

Suffice it to say, it was a labor of love. It took hours to prepare. Hours and hours and hours.

I've been doing this now, off and on, for about a year. The folks at St. Paul's, Georgetown, DE have been my inspiration and I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

Oh, I've tried it, from time to time, over the years. But, I've really been attempting serious application of this theory on Sunday and major holidays.

Here's some of the things I've learned:

First, this is not as easy as it looks. Seriously.

And, let me tell you from first hand experience, it's not for sissies. 

It's so waaaay beyond a simple memorization of the text it is mind-boggling.

You have to let go of any notion of "perfection", which is really an illusion anyway, even with a prepared text in front of you.

Once that's established, you have to be comfortable enough with imperfection to invite people in to find the humor in the absurdity of life. Because, I mean, what you are attempting to do is smack-dab in the midst of the Realm of The Absurd.

It begins with the fact that, as Episcopalians and Anglicans, we are people of Word and Sacrament.

Let me "rinse and repeat": That's Word (as in Scripture) AND Sacrament (as in Eucharist).

It's a balance.

The task of the preacher is to break open the Word so that the people of God may be nourished in the same way that the Sacrament of Eucharist feeds the people of God to go forth and do the work of The Word - the mission of the Church - the Good News of The Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At least, that's the way I was taught. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

I was also taught that one ought to strive to make The Breaking Open of The Word no longer than The Breaking Open of The Bread. So, 10-15 minutes tops. Which is - generally (ahem) - no problem, if one is reading from a manuscript and reading the Eucharistic Prayer from the BCP.

However, if one is "preaching from a prepared heart", the almost irresistible seduction in hearing the sound of one's own voice and connecting visually with the eyes and faces of others is to . . . well, to put it kindly . . . wander.

It takes enormous discipline to preach without a manuscript, precisely because one can be tempted to cover one's insecurities by wandering off into a piece of church history or tradition or scripture or a pity story from one's own life experience or someone else's in which one feels positively confident and can "show off" a bit by imparting one's knowledge to the unsuspecting masses who have not had the time, money or inclination to afford a seminary education.

Or, the luxury of time to be actually paid to reflect on these things. 

It is a temptation which should be resisted with every ounce of once's being - whether or not one is preaching from a manuscript in the pulpit or from a prepared heart in the center aisle. 

It also helps to have a story to tell.

I mean, Jesus did it all the time.

Telling a story - especially one that has actually happened to you and has been, in some way, transformative - is, in my admittedly not-so-humble opinion and admittedly neophyte position, the heart of a sermon which is preached from a prepared heart.

There is something additionally transformative for the preacher in telling the story and watching the transformation - or, at least, reaction / response - on some of the faces of some of the members of the congregation.

In that moment, the presence of the Spirit is palpable. By that I mean that one can actually, really, honestly and seriously feel the presence of The Spirit - Ruach, Shekinah - in the room.

The feeling can range from feeling as prickly as electricity in the air or as comforting as an old, warm, tattered sweater.

In that particular moment - for me, anyway - I absolutely do not remember what I've said. It's scary and wonderful and mystical - to be in control of so many things about preaching and yet completely surrendered to and trusting in The Spirit.

And then, there's the whole point of the sermon.

Fail #1: Give good advice instead of Good News
The point - the ONE IMPORTANT THING - you are trying to say and have tried to illustrate with your sermon. It's important, at the end of your sermon, to state how you think your story has made your point.  And, to make it with passion and clarity and in a way that allows people to have something to take home and think about. - even if they disagree with you. 

This is the "one, two, three" of your one sermon point which you make without actually saying "one, two, three". And, saying it with conviction and passion - or, at least, some sense of urgency.

Because, you know, if you don't think what you've just said is important, I mean, why bother?

So, I just want to say that I'm no where near as "polished" as I want to be about this.

I am still practicing, practicing, practicing and I am beginning to feel some improvement. Sort of like the point a musician reaches when she has moved from scales and a halting rendition of "Heart and Soul" to her first recital when she hasn't actually "nailed it" but she hasn't embarrassed herself, either.

Or a sculptor or painter or musician who has had a public viewing of his work and, perhaps, received an inquiry about the purchase of his piece. Not a sale, actually, perhaps. The inquiry is enough.

I've been practicing the art and science of priesthood for almost 29 years.

What I've discovered is that I still have so much to learn.

I'm not blowing smoke here.

This is my truth.

I am so grateful for the folks who have tolerated me and been so patient with me for so long over all these many years.  I'm so blessed to have known so many generous Christians who are kind and compassionate. You have taught me so much. I hope I've been a good student.

I'm also thankful for those of you who have been my sharpest critics. You have also taught me things I never would have learned any other way.

Here's the thing: When done well, whether using a manuscript or preaching from a prepared heart, preachers always fly with The Holy Spirit.

As one Hospice patient said to me recently, "Honey, it's not how you come to church, it's how you leave it that matters."

If the preacher and presider isn't transformed, how can we expect anyone else to have that experience? And, if not, why bother coming to church in the first place?

Suffice it to say, - preached from a manuscript from the pulpit or preached without a note from the center aisle - a sermon is a labor of love.

At least, that's what it is for me.

Your actual mileage may vary. 

For me, it's all about "nourish(ing) Christ's people from the riches of God's grace, and strenghten(ing) them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come." Just as it says in the vows a priest makes at ordination (BCP 531)

That's not about "fast food". That's about substance.

No matter  from the pulpit or center aisle.

But always, always, always, from a prepared heart.

Because we are people of Word and Sacrament.

And, the Eucharist is the sacrifice of thanksgiving and the sermon is a labor of Love.