03 May, 2009
This past week, as we gathered with Lisa’s family and our friends to say goodbye to my mother-in-law, there were many opportunities to laugh and to tell stories, to listen to each other. That’s been my experience of family gatherings around funeral time. To tell stories of the deceased, certainly. But also to tell stories on each other and on ourselves. When families gather, at least the families I’m connected to genetically or by marriage, it has been so very good to remember other times we had gathered. Other experiences we’d had together. To remember the ties that bind.
And on the night before we left, as we were finishing up our dinner, we started talking about our younger days. When girlfriends became wives and we all became family. We talked about places we’d lived. About jobs we each had had. And somehow we got stuck for a little while talking about the worst jobs we had ever had. As we remembered them, I noticed there was a bit of pain in the telling. Memories of disappointments or injustices. Missed opportunities. For a couple of us, the memories were ones of thanksgiving, like thank God I got out of that one. That was certainly my experience.
I certainly have had a few bad jobs in my day, thankfully none of them as an ordained person. But if you had been on the search committee or the vestry, or talked to me about my work experience, you know I’ve done a variety of things. And there were just a few, particularly in my 20s, that might easily qualify as my worst job. Except it wasn’t a job from my 20s that I mentioned the other night. It wasn’t the 6 months I spent at the Philadelphia Int’l Airport. 6 months in the middle of winter, working from 6:30 at night until 3 in the morning. 6:30pm until 3am with Mondays and Tuesdays off. I was on a team of 6 or 7 people who cleaned the Delta jets that over-nighted in Philly. That in itself wasn’t so bad. Really it wasn’t. But once a week, my job was to drive what’s called in business – the lav truck. And the lav truck goes from airplane to airplane, removing dirty blue water from the lavs and replacing it with clean blue water. If you’re not with me on what the blue water is on airplanes, catch me in the narthex after church.
Well, I’m here to tell you, you haven’t lived until you come in for dinner break at 11 at night, go into the bathroom to wash your hands and realize you have blue icicles in your hair. That’s all you need to know about that job.
But again, that was not the worst job. Nor was the next “promotion” I got at Delta. You see, Delta at that time was committed to promoting leadership from within the company. The president of the airline, we were often reminded, had been a baggage handler when he started. And so that was my next promotion. No, not president of the airline, but baggage handler. In the summer. In Atlanta. And as the only person under 25 on a team of men bumping up against retirement, I spent the summer and fall of 1988 stacking bags in the bellies of 727s and MD88s. “Hop on up in there College boy,” they’d tell me. And hop in I would. Trust me when I tell you that an airplane cargo bin at Hartsfield Atlanta Int’l airport is a hot place to spend a summer. But I knew I was on my way to that bright future in the airline business that I had been assured was mine.
It wasn’t until I took a 5 year leave of absence from DL—from lav trucks and cargo bins and ticket counters, that I experienced my worst job ever. It was 1995 and the airline business was in one of its cyclical downturns. DL was doing something it had never done before, talking about layoffs. A leave of absence was pitched as a great opportunity to try something else, to get some different experiences. Maybe bring them back to Delta when things improved. And I bit.
Which brings me to the job I reminisced about the other night with our family. And it brings me to the point of this story. This review of the less stellar moments of my work history does have a point.
I panicked. Newly married, no real work experience outside the airline business and good old trusty English degree in my hip pocket, I needed a j-o-b. And fast. I met a woman at the airport, actually, who offered me a job as a salesman in her company. They sold marble fireplaces to homebuilders and remodelers and high-end design companies. I knew nothing about the marble business, nothing about the building industry. I knew nothing about sales. But for some reason, I was hired anyway.
It was a small, family-owned business and everyone there wore lots of different hats. IN addition to spending time on the phone and calling on builders, sometimes I’d be called back to the warehouse to load or unload a truck. I can drive a forklift because of that job. And occasionally, when a big order came in, I’d be asked to help custom-cut the pieces of marble to fit a certain job. This huge saw, with water streaming over the marble to keep it from overheating or kicking up dust. Piece after piece of Italian marble through that blade. Measuring, measuring again, cutting, stacking, measuring, cutting, stacking, measuring. One Friday afternoon in October, I was in the warehouse by myself. Measuring, cutting, stacking. And that was when I heard the voice. A voice I can only describe it as just short of audible.
“Get out of here.” That’s all I heard. I wasn’t thinking about how unhappy I was there, which I was. I wasn’t thinking about other prospects, which perhaps I should have been, or beating myself up for taking a job that in my gut I knew was wrong. I was cutting marble, and trying to keep from cutting my arm off.
Now, I’m not sure if what I heard was exactly the voice that John’s Gospel has in mind as it remembers Jesus saying, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. But I think it was close.
Listening for the voice. Listening to the voice. Listening. That’s what Jesus says his followers, his flock, will do, if they are to believe. If we are to believe. That’s how we develop and nurture our faith. By listening for and to the voice of the shepherd.
One of the ways we do that, of course, is in reading and studying scripture. Remembering, retelling and reclaiming the stories of Good News. Of the life and ministry of Jesus. And by sharing our experiences of resurrection and new life with each other. By talking and listening to God and to each other.
But it was not in the study of scripture that I heard the voice. And there was no burning bush, no parting of the clouds. No witnesses. But I have come to believe that as I was standing at that saw, completing a task that required very little thought except to keep my hands away from the blade. In the repetition and routine of the work, in the solitude of that warehouse, in the constant drone of the saw, some space was opened for me to listen. To really listen. I was in a meditative posture of sorts, with no particular thought in my head. And something shifted. My whole life shifted.
Get out of here, the voice said. And on Monday morning, after a weekend of talking and planning with Lisa, I resigned. It was still 7 or 8 years until I headed off to seminary, but the path to ordination really began there. At that saw. It began there because it was there that I began to trust my own gifts. To take seriously an interest in writing. To surround myself with people who supported this change. To trust that the work I needed to be about had to involve my god-given talents. I started pulling on threads, and following them. And then grabbing another thread. And another. Until I pulled the thread that was Emmanuel Episcopal Church.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
A word of warning. Try not to confuse the priest with a shepherd. Sure, it’s an image we sometimes use to describe this role Beverly, Arienne and I have. And congregations can certainly be like an unruly flock of sheep sometimes. But we clergy types are in the flock as well. In fact, if you want to see an unruly flock, spend some time at a gathering of Episcopal priests. Whew.
As the called people of God, lay and ordained, we are asked to listen for the voice of the good shepherd. The true shepherd. To listen. To respond. And to discern. And then to believe. Because we can never really know if the voice we are hearing is the Good Shepherd until we try it out. Hear how others have heard and responded. That’s how are faith is discovered, nurtured and strengthened.
In the years ahead, I want us to continue to tell our stories. To let our understandings of God bump up against each other. And I want us to look for more ways to be quiet. To listen more and talk less. Something that’s so hard to do in our noisy, busy culture.
Listening. It changes lives in ways we can never imagine.
25 December, 2008
Lessons for Christmas
It had been a horrible year. Those who lived through it will recognize it as soon as I start the roll call of the year's news events. If you were born later, or too young at the time to remember the events when they happened...a short history lesson might put our current situation in perspective.
It was in April that year that Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Almost immediately, riots broke out in Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, and over 100 other cities around the country. Relations between black and white Americans ran the gamut from tense to deadly. In June, Bobby Kennedy was killed while running for President. Students were taking over university administration buildings across the country in protest of a war on distant shores. and at SC State University, students...students... were killed during a protest.
The Black Panthers and police engaged in shootouts in various places. At the democratic convention in Chicago, the police and political protesters fought violently in the streets. The increasingly unpopular war took over 16k lives that year, the highest yearly total for the war since US involvement in Viet Nam began. The North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive in January. The My Lai massacre in March further hardened American opinion against the war. That year, that horrible year, a presidential administration ended in a train wreck of malaise and mistrust.
And the problems, the wars and rumors of war were also out beyond the sphere of direct American influence as well. The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia that year, reasserting authoritarian control, as authoritarian types always do, reasserted control and brought to an end the reforms known as the “Prague spring." There were terrorist attacks in 1968...in Germany by The Red Army Faction. In Northern Ireland, as "the troubles" between good Christian folk--between Protestant and Catholics-- terrorism in the name of Jesus...escalated as it continued to do for a couple more decades.
To co-opt old blue eyes--it was a very bad year. for 17 year olds...for 21 year olds...for 35 year olds...for those in the autumn of the year. From the brim to the dregs, it was a very bad year. And yet, on Christmas Eve of that very bad year...1968...we received the gift of a new vision of ourselves...a new perspective that no one had ever had before. In the words of one journalist...it was on the day before Christmas in 1968 that three astronauts, Frank Borman, William Anders and James Lovell, cruising 69 miles over the slate-rubbled surface of the back side of the Moon, having ventured farther from home than any humans in history, looked up and saw their home world, again, for the first time, as a planet, a blue oasis in the void, rising over the dead gray moonscape.
They took a photograph of it. One that is familiar to most of us, even if we weren't aware of when it was taken. A photo of the earth rising over the surface of the moon. Earthrise it’s called. And I can't pray the words of our Eucharistic Prayer...the one we call Prayer C, without seeing the photograph in my mind's eye that those astronauts brought back with them to earth. When I hear…At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home. This fragile earth, our island home. When I hear those words, I think of that photo.
It wasn't until that Apollo 8 mission, until Borman, Anders and Lovell got that view that we humans were able to grasp the incredible beauty of the gift we have been given...the gift of our fragile earth, our island home. In their message from the space craft, as they hovered above the moon on that Christmas Eve 40 years ago, they included a reading of the first verses of the creation story from the first chapter of Genesis...each of them taking a turn until it ended with--And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good."
Remembering the experience years later, Frank Borman said he thought it was fantastic, looking back on Earth on Christmas Eve. Everything dear to me, he said, was down there on Earth. Borman imagined that's how God must see it too.
And I would imagine that’s how God must have seen it 2000 years ago as well. That year, those years leading up to the birth of the baby Jesus. It had been a bunch of bad years really… for the people of God anyway. For decades, they had been kicked around by one empire or another. Kicked around by the Romans. Sold down the river by the religious officials who were supposed to be watching out for them.
And yet, it was those people…those shepherds…those people living on the edge of things…the widows, the orphans…the poor unmarried girls…looking for a place to have a baby…it was those people who were as dear to God as anyone could be. And it is to those people first…and then to all people…that a savior was born
Year after year, in good times...in bad times...the Christmas message for the past 2000 years is that the whole created is order is beloved of God, so beloved in fact, that the divine presence came to dwell among us in this world as one of us. That to all people, not just the powerful and influential, but to lowly shepherds...and peasants...and sick people...and poor people...sad and lonely people..a king was born...a new kind of king. A king who would turn the order upside down…who combined all that is good in us…in the human animal…combined that with the spark of the divine …
Horrible years come and go. This past one was not the first. It will not be the last. But what endures…what calls us forward…what gives meaning to our lives…is the realization that God is with us…always with us…not to fix things…but to call us to our better selves.
I hope this coming year, we…you and I…the Episcopal Church…Christians far and wide.. can be the people God knows us to be. And so…perhaps this time next year…or the next…we can say together…now that…was a very good year.
Not because the stock market rebounded, or because the housing market stabilized…or because the church budget got huge.. No…whenever we finally say, now that was a very good year..…let it be because we got a few steps closer to the reign of God. This is the work of the gospel and that is our calling…now and until it finally happens..
06 December, 2008
verse 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
verse 35 Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,
verse 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
Staying awake, remaining alert. It's hard to do. And honestly, as much as I'd like to say it's because it's starting to get dark around what seems like 2 in the afternoon, that's not what Jesus is talking about I don't think. throughout the gospels, there is this admonition to stay awake. It's in parables and it's in requests Jesus makes of his disciples
No, the problem with staying awake, has less to do with winter solstice and the cloud cover and more to do with the very human propensity to check out from reality.
And these days, reality oftentimes seems like a bitter pill to have to swallow. And even if we are upright and walking, our eyes are open and a thermos of coffee attached to our hip, we can be asleep. Unaware. For some it's drinking too much, or taking an extra tablet of that prescription, We all find ways to stay numb. Sometimes it's staying buried deep in a novel, or a computer game, mindless television, updating facebook pages or surfing the net becomes a way to numb ourselves. Sometimes, even watching the news is a way to check out, to fall asleep, to not be alert.
It's something I noticed beginning on Wednesday, this vegging out with TV news, as I began to hear about the terrible tragedy in India. It's easy to get sucked into the drama of it. the 24-hour coverage of it. the reality TV'ness of it. experiencing anything through the window of the television screen makes it nearly impossible to really "get" that it's really happening, to real people. Unless we feel the blasts, smell the smoke, see the horror first hand, it becomes a sad event that's happening to someone else. somewhere else.
Friday night on the airplane trip from Atlanta to Seattle, between chapters of the novel I was reading and a few rounds of the video trivia game. I was trying to check out from the discomfort of my narrow and cramped seat on that narrow and cramped Delta jet. I would occasionally flip the little TV monitor on to the CNN coverage, to check out in a new way. the standoff at the Taj Mahal hotel was coming to an end as we were somewhere over Missouri. All that billowing black smoke pouring out of that 100 plus year old building, the lives of the guests and their families, their fellow Indians and Israelis, Brits and Americas, the lives of the hotel staff changed forever.
Just as the drama of it was winding down, the flight attendant handed me my coke, I lowered the headset to thank her and she said, oh, that's so sad. I nodded, and I realized that it was as much of the suffering of others that we were willing to engage or think about: we were at the, oh that's so sad stage. to then be dismissed to the growing list of things I didn't want to think too much about.
and then, thank God, I got a reality check. As I sat there sipping my coke and watching the conversation taking place between Larry King and his panel of guests, the Indian man on the panel woke me up. He wondered aloud why these religious conflicts, between Muslims and Jews, or Protestants and Catholics, between Muslims and Christians, Hindus and Muslims. Religious conflicts once localized to Israel and Palestine, to Northern Ireland, to Bosnia, and nations in Africa, have now become global. He wondered aloud why more and more young Muslim men are willing to kill and be killed. to kill and be killed in the name of God.
What is it about the world today that has gotten us to this point (?) he wondered. He made a couple of references to religious fundamentalism and noted that it was not just financial markets and manufacturing and corporations that were now global, it was also religious fundamentalism. And the extreme elements in every religion were media savvy, were tech savvy and were willing to kill and be killed in order to receive their heavenly reward.
I then remembered an explanation of fundamentalism that I had read just a few days before. Read it in an interview with the writer Chris Hedges. He's just published a book critical of the new atheists. Writers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens. Authors of books like the God Delusion, The end of Faith and God is not Great. Books that certainly have a thing or two to say to religious folk, but authors who seem to Hedges to be as fundamentalist in their own line of thinking as the religious people they criticize.
Hedges says that fundamentalism can be found in both the religious and the secular worlds. It's a worldview that divides the world into us and them, good and evil, right and wrong. Fundamentalism, Hitchens says, is a belief that the individual and those who subscribe to the same ideology have found the absolute truth. It must be accepted by everyone. And here's the scary place we are today--fundamentalism requires that those who don't accept that worldview must be silenced or eradicated.
That's certainly what was going on in India this past week. The bloody work of silencing or eradicating those who see the world differently. And I would imagine, for the Muslims who support these acts of terrorism, they see an attempt from the west to silence or eradicate them. Maybe they feel that even if they're not the terrorists, there is an attempt from the rest of the world to eradicate them, or at least to eradicate their way of life. The Indian man on Larry King's panel was the only one willing to ask the tough questions. Questions about how this situation came to be as it is. Everyone else was talking about immediate retribution.
Jesus and those who followed him lived in times not so very different from ours. The world was dominated by a particular worldview--in the case of the first century Mediterranean world--the political and economic worldview of the Roman Empire. There were certainly a wide diversity of religious viewpoints. And the Jewish people were of many minds about what it meant to worship the God of Israel. Jesus and his followers represented one of those viewpoints. In those days, there were acts of terrorism, attempts to overthrown the ruling Roman elites. The temple in Jerusalem, the center of religious life for the Jews, was finally destroyed in the year 70 because the Romans had had enough of subversive Jewish trouble making.
Yes, Jesus and his followers would certainly understand the state of the world today. And so what would he do, what would he say, if he were gathering with friends over turkey and dressing, sweet potatoes. Gathering with friends and family and news came to them of death and destruction. Of the brutal murders of business people, of people simply waiting for the next train, of spiritual seekers, of rabbis. He would not immediately call for retribution, I'm pretty sure of that. He would do now as he did then....he would ask questions....he would stop and think....he would pray...and he would remind his followers to stay awake.
We are living in very difficult times. Dangerous times. Perhaps not any more difficult than life has ever been. but certainly more dangerous. more dangerous because we have the ability to blow the whole enterprise to smithereenes. To bring about the Apocalypse that today's gospel reading refers to in those words at the beginning of the reading--But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
So, as those who follow Jesus in this day and age, we are called like his followers have always been called: to heal, to feed, to gather together as a community to break the bread, called to ask the tough questions and to be willing to hear the response. As Americans, we sometimes forget to hear what other people are saying and that has gotten us into trouble. So that might be a particularly helpful reminder for us--to listen.
And always and forever, we are called to stay awake. A response will eventually be needed from us....we must be prepared to act in the way that is worthy of the One we follow and serve.