Friends and Readers, I will not lie. This has been a year of beautiful moments and new paths unfolding (which I do tend to take time to write about, or work into my sermons at the very least) but it has also brought the incessant pounding of grief on the door of my heart, overwhelming workloads that have decimated any semblance of self-care I had previously carved out, and it has been accompanied by the inevitable second guessing of myself that accompanies a whole pile of “new” entering my life. Mostly, my life is amazing. But, at one point this week, I found myself in my kitchen chopping carrots with such a vengeance that I’m shocked I still have all my fingers. Emotional overload is real y’all. Sometimes it’s a fine thread that keeps all our pieces strung together.
Thankfully, I’m not alone in this world and any time I’ve asked for help and encouragement this week (and even when I haven’t asked, to be honest) my people have been there for me, and points of light have found me. One friend and mentor directly reminded me to not overlook the points of light that can be readily seen on my social media posts and the glimpses of my life that I share out loud with those who care about me. I was deeply grateful for that reminder, and I needed to hear it above the din of clutter in my own mind.
All this took me back to thinking about when I started this blog. Unbelievably, it will be seven years in February. It was Ash Wednesday; it started as kind of a whim, a lenten intention to notice the small points of light on the journey I had been walking. I wasn’t a priest then. I wasn’t even discerning openly about my vocation and call, although to repurpose a therapeutic note from the transtheoretical model, “prediscernment” was certainly in action in the inner recesses of my mind. Back then, I did a thing. I made an intention to write something down every day during that lenten season and I didn’t even tell anyone I was doing it for quite some time. I did it for myself, really, and I discovered so much about my life, past and present. I kept doing it…not every day…but I persisted and seven years (and four more blog projects) later, I can sit here at a time where life is heavy and my string is ready to snap, and now I have this huge pile of stories to remind me to see all the light, especially at times where it wasn’t so evident.
I spent time this morning with people attending the food pantry at the parish where I now serve. I gave blessings and prayed with those who asked. Others received food, backpacks, duffle bags, toiletries, bus passes…whatever we had available. I heard (and held) stories of people who are hard-working, proud, determined, and kind-hearted and have ended up at the short end of social and economic inequality from health conditions that were accompanied by massive debt; strings of industrial lay-offs without benefits; evictions from overpriced and undermaintained rental properties which damaged their credit. Over two short hours, I also met advocates, musicians, encouragers, creative theologians, devout believers, unwarranted optimists, new faces with new stories and some old friends who have walked this journey with me for so long now that they consider themselves (rightly so) among my teachers and tell me, “I remember you back when you first started out.” Paul told me he was proud of me today, and that was a gift like gold.
This group of people that bad circumstances bring together for a hot meal and hospitality is the flock that nurtures my spirit. We don’t have to pretend: we know the system is rigged, that bad things happen to good people, that hard work doesn’t always get you to the top, that people don’t always get what they deserve, and people don’t always deserve what they get. Our unspoken motto is: don’t panic. Our spiritual practice is to believe that even when there feels like nothing, there is Something; to claim our identity as Beloved even when we don’t feel that way or others try to convince us differently; to open our hands and hearts to what comes to us, instead of clinging to everything we encounter, knowing we are merely travelers through this world.
I highly recommend this. I acknowledge that it gets harder (because our hearts get harder) when reality starts to become defined by work, wealth, or influence. Those things are the great temptations of the world in which we live and they will pull us off course at every opportunity. Do meaningful work; be generous; share relationship. That is what is real.
Let me close by telling the brief story of a few things that knocked me back into doing what is real this week (again, thankfully, not a chopped off finger!).
Last year, I met Earl when I was serving as Deacon and Missioner to Monroe Park. Earl was sleeping in the ally next to the parish across from the park, which is where my ministry was tethered. When I opened the chapel doors one cold winter morning, his tall and lurching presence startled me at first. I invited him in to the chapel, and we talked. I won’t relate his whole story but its relevant to say he was just out of the hospital; currently homeless and ineligible for many traditional shelter programs. Long story short, over a few days Earl and I worked out a plan to get him connected to health care and housing options and back on his feet, and I bought a tracphone which I called the “Deacon Phone” and lent it to him so he could call various rental places we’d uncovered. I didn’t see Earl again, and after a while where he’d call me to check in or vice versa, he didn’t answer the phone anymore. These things happen; I know that. I continued to pray for him every day at morning prayer in the chapel nevertheless, whether he was among the living or among the dead. Frankly, I assumed the latter.
Fast forward, yesterday I was at that parish where I’d previously served working with some social work students and my former colleague in ministry there came in and said, “Someone came in last week and wanted to return this to you.” She handed me the aforementioned Deacon Phone. I confirmed that it was Earl, who I learned had been hospitalized for some time but now was indeed back on his feet. Here it was a year later, and a person on death’s door (and sleeping on church doorstep) came back to find me and return a phone. The moral of this story isn’t about a phone. It’s about relationship. And in that small, cell-phone shaped point of light God also dwells.
I tell this story, because it’s too easy to write off people like Earl. “The homeless” become one dehumanized entity, rather than a whole range of individual people with complex identities and life stories. I am honored to know some of Earl’s story, for the gift of his presence and the reminder of how our lives interconnect and create meaning mutually. Even the most well-intentioned among us can become hardened by fear and avoid stepping out of the bubbles of presumption and self-protection which shelter distrust. God is just waiting at the margins, inviting us all into relationship.
So thank you, Earl. And thank you to the woman today who sang me a Gospel hymn while I hugged her and we prayed for her dentist to finish her upper plate so she could smile again. And thank you to the resident theologian who told me, “I have a Master of Divinity from the Master Himself!” then went over to the piano to exercise his wrists and serenaded us with several minutes of heartfelt melodies. And thank you to the quiet young man who I remembered to locate a duffle bag for after he asked for one two weeks ago who, as he was leaving, looked me in the eyes and quietly said, “I’m glad you remembered.”
We have to remember that we are not in this world alone, or in our bubbles. We’re in this together with God in our midst. And that, my friends, is the real point of light.