The Class of ’79

I had the chance to meet a member of my high school class a short while ago. We had both found our way to the hot tub in our health club and, while it took a second, we recognized each other and began to talk.

We talked about knees, mine, hers, the operations we had or anticipated. When only a few years have passed since high school people talk about jobs, success, cars, and such. As the years pass we talk about children, grandchildren, and knees that don’t quite work the same way as they did when we were younger. I suppose that in the years to come those of us who remain will talk about those who have passed on and one day there will only be one of us left to remember anything at all. Such is the nature of things.

In some ways my high school days seem like they really were decades ago, and sometimes it seems like an instant. I was new to town and so I didn’t have the advantage of history with people that’s so important when you try to fit in in a small town, and although the town I went to high school in was a metropolitan suburb, it was also a small town. My father’s job, a good job for him and us, uprooted me from the place where I had grown and I don’t think I ever was successfully transplanted to the new garden.

So high school was often odd and lonely for me and I certainly don’t look back at it as some kind of “Glory days.” It’s hard to be forced by law and geography to be at a place where you don’t feel you belong and combining that with all the craziness that is adolescence was sometimes overwhelming. There are days when even now I wish I could have somehow stayed in my hometown with the people who knew me from when I was a kid, the people I had to leave suddenly in the middle of 8th grade. That place wasn’t perfect either, no place is, but sometimes when I walked the high school halls alone I wished I was somewhere, anywhere, else and the place I left behind seemed as good a place as any.

Thirty plus years out from high school, of course, everything is different. Time and maturity do their work and wisdom helps you gain perspective. High school was hard for me but it also helped me grow strong, become a caring person, and provided the storm that made the calm that followed even more sweet. I left the place like a rocket launching into the air and I’ve kept climbing. A substantial part of who I am now is rooted in that time, the largest part, I suppose, just the sheer determination to prove to the world that the person they saw in those days was never going to be my destiny and that there was, and is, so much more. Knowing what it was like to hurt, and hurt badly, my whole life from those days has been about healing, my own, and, even more than that, doing whatever I could to see healing happen wherever I happened to be. It helped make me a Priest, and a caregiver, and a person fiercely passionate about the amazing power of Jesus to transform lives, even reality itself. Though I was often a stranger at my own high school I’d like to think that if they saw me now they would know that things have worked out well, thank God.

Still, I don’t keep track of many of the people from my high school class. I know some of them have died and from time to time I meet one here and there. It’s in my nature to have only a few close friends. It’s not that I don’t like people, my work is such that I’m surrounded by them every day and I probably know, or have known, hundreds of people all around the world. My inner circle, by my own preference, is just small. Still, I do pray for my high school class often, sometimes at church and more often when God wakes me up in the middle of the night to pray. I wish them well, I really do, and I wish them all the blessings and good things this life has to offer. I hope they are at peace and sometimes when I ponder things I think about what they may be doing or where they are and I hope the life they have is wonderful in the best sense of that word.

So it was good, this chance meeting in the health club hot tub with an old classmate. I remember her as a good person, still is, and we talked about knees, hers, mine, and ours, the kind of talk you get from people in their middle age. The thoughts of that chance encounter are the seed of what I’ve written and I pray, too, that her life has been, and will be blessed.

God is good, all the time, and because of His goodness to me I wish every one in the Mahtomedi High School Class of 1979 all of His blessings as well, peace in this world and heaven in the world to come. This coming Sunday I’ll do what I’ve often done before and light a candle at church with your names on it.

 

 

 

Sometimes Faith…

is really just patience, the art of not trying to make things happen before the times and seasons that God, and only God, knows are best. It is the act of surrendering agendas and timetables of our own design to the better plan of the One who sees everything from a better vantage point, namely eternity. Such a surrender can be a difficult thing because it means giving up the cherished sense of identity we ascribe to the illusion of being in control of every aspect of our world.

The Journey Continues…

I received a phone call yesterday from OCMC (Orthodox Christian Mission Center) asking me to consider if I could move my participation in a Uganda Health Team from mid August to early September. It was for a good reason, they had health care practitioners that could only make it for the mission team at that time. I, however, could not.

It isn’t a complete loss because I simply moved my application and my funding to place me in Tanzania later this year, helping the local clergy and sharing the Faith. Yet it was kind of disappointing as well because I had prayed, fundraised, prepared, planned, researched, and sent letters overseas in the hope that in just a few weeks I would be in Uganda. A part of my heart was already there. I thought the hand of God was in this.

So now comes the task of untangling myself and rearranging all the details. It can be done. I’ve done it before. I’m grateful for the quick assistance of my Senior Priest and Bishop who enabled me to make a quick decision by their blessing. OCMC will change all the travel arrangements. No money will be lost. Good work will still be done. The next months will be spent learning about Tanzania, picking up some of the language, and finding out how I need to serve.

I may, however, never know the movements of God behind all of this. Originally I had hoped to go to Ghana and then a pregnancy in my office changed the whole schedule and rerouted me to Uganda where everything was ready to go until the last minute. Then it changed. It is, as we Orthodox like to say, a mystery and the answer may never come.

Yet I need to trust that the hand of God is working in my life even if I don’t always see it or understand the specifics. Perhaps I’ll know in time. Perhaps not until that day. Still, there is a reason and all I can do is pray and take one step in front of the other.

The next week brings the untangling process. I’ll need to rearrange the travel insurance. There’s a Metropolitan Bishop in Uganda to whom I have to send my regrets. I have to check the paperwork and relearn details.  On the whole I would rather have been on cruise control in these coming weeks. Now I need to start over.

Yet, its not my will but God’s be done and one step in front of the other.

I Was Hoping…

for a perfect Lent, you know, the kind where everything lined up just as it was supposed to be, the food, the services, the plans for doing this and that.

Then life intervened.

There was family to take care of, extra hours at work, health issues of my own, snow storms, the list goes on. In the face of it all it wasn’t long before my well thought out plans to make all the services, read all the ingredients on the food boxes, and spend hours in spiritual reading sort of fell away. Whatever it is I thought I was going to accomplish came with a big stamp on the box that now reads “Not This Year”.

In looking back at it, as I try to make of Lent what I can in the swirl of things, the operative thing seems to be “My” plans. Now I’m not saying that it’s not good to plan for Lent. One of the great gifts of our Faith is the two Sundays prior to Lent when we can ponder the time to come and ease into its life. What I have discovered, again, is, however, that if it’s about “My” plans then it’s probably not going to work out so well.

There are two errors, perhaps, in observing Lent. The first is to simply ignore it as some kind of anachronistic ritual with little meaning in the real world. The reality is our American culture is a gluttonous culture, gluttonous for everything, and we and I need the spirit and reality of Lent now more than ever. The second trap may be just the opposite, that is to make Lent an end in itself, to keep its technicalities and miss the larger picture.

In my case I wanted a Lent with no “mistakes” where all the required observances were met with precision and I could look back on things with a sense of accomplishment. What I got was a busy, crazy, world of people who just needed someone to help them, tired days and nights, swirls of events beyond my control, and the reality that I’m going to be one of those “11th hour” people mentioned in the Paschal Homily.

What I had hoped for, the “ideal” Lent, isn’t going to happen. What I didn’t want to happen, namely that I would fall into Pascha all banged up, tired, and in tatters, seems to be the current trajectory. Yet since God’s power is manifest in my time of weakness and His grace is sufficient for me I still long for the banquet to come and the joy of saying, as frazzled as I am, “Christ is Risen”.

For the New Year…

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From Philippians chapter 3…

 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Among the Hardest…

things to bear as a Pastor/Priest is when the people whose struggles you have born, whose tears you have comforted, whose cares you have endured, turn on you, especially in your hour of need. This happens, a lot. For every member of the clergy who has sinfully and horribly abused members of their communities there are many more pastors who have been abused by their parishes. Long hours, Ridiculously low pay. Extraordinary demands, Constant back biting and critique. The list goes on and an increasing number of clergy have simply given up and gone back into the world for the sake of their sanity, their families, and their souls.

I know. I’ve been there. I know what its like to be curled up on the floor of a parsonage in tears because the deacons fired you for no good reason. I know what its like to have people literally yell at you and actively plot to hurt you, your ministry, and your reputation. Some of the cruelest people I’ve ever experienced in my life have been regular church goers. The wounds are deep, lingering, and profound.

To this day I always keep at least one eye open at all times when dealing in church matters not because I like the way that feels but rather because hard experience has made this a necessity for survival. I have no intention of reliving any of those sad moments and exposing myself or the ones I love to that kind of hurt. I look for hidden agendas, for the lies that are inevitably told, for the game within the game. I’d love to give myself to people without reserve, without fear, without care, but to do so is to be unwise. There’s a difference between a martyr and a fool and in time you realize that if you’re bled dry there’ll be nothing at all left to share.

I know this sounds harsh, even cynical. I desperately don’t want to be that way but as they say “Once bitten twice shy” and the truth is that I, and many others who’ve tried to work out the call of God to serve in the Church, have been gnawed on through the skin to the bone. You never forget that, even if you want to, and it makes you feel bad for feeling that way even as you know you have to hold something back so there’s some shelter when the walls cave in. And they will.

So why write this?

Part of it is reflection on a friend from the “way back days” who is going through this whole thing for himself, again. He’s not a jerk. He’s not a heretic. He’s not slept with anyone. Yet that didn’t stop a parish from rolling him. I feel sad for him, his wife, his family, and angry too that he’s going to have to walk some of the path I and thousands of others in ministry have had to travel. It makes my heart ache.

The other part of it is for you, the reader, to hear the personal side of my story so you realize those of us who try our best to serve God and you as Priests, Pastors, and Ministers, have made ourselves vulnerable for your sakes. We lay our lives open on an all day, every day, basis and when you turn on us its a very serious thing and can leave a lifetime of scars. Yes, there are clergy out there who teach heresy and need to be removed. There are a very small group  of clerics who will take financial, emotional, sexual, or physical abuse of the people in their flocks. Sometimes, even, a Pastor has done all they can in one place and needs to be renewed in another. This all happens. Yet for the very most part we really are, as far as humanly possible, trying to serve you with our best efforts. We really do care. We really want you to have the life God would have for you. And we really hurt when you take the gifts we offer and trample on them.

All I ask, for myself and for those who serve you in the church, is that you realize this and think before you make that harsh remark. Think before you say the unkind word behind our backs. Think before you consider how to hurt us. Think before you add one more unrealistic demand on the dozens already on our plate. Think hard before you decide you’re better off without us and that the next one coming down the line will better suit your needs. Think before you project your own darkness on us.

Above all pray for us. Most of us will never say out loud the things I’ve just said. Most of us will work through our hurts, try our best to forgive, and find a way to carry on. Most of us will bear our wounds in silence. Most of us will find a way to hang on because we believe that this is more than a job, its a holy calling. And when the load is too hard to carry we, for the most part, just slip out the back door and try not to make too much of fuss in our departure. Your prayers, then, become life and light and hope and calm for us. They are food and water in a land where hunger and thirst are common. They lift us up, and they lift you up as well. Just knowing they are there can be a cool wind on a torrid day.

Tonight, out there somewhere, is a Pastor sitting by themselves wondering if it’s all worth it. They thought this was what God wanted them to do but now they’re not quite sure. They’re torn up inside between stark choices and what they’re seeking is just a little peace, a little light, and a little hope. The world outside the church seems like a shelter and the walls of the church like a nightmare. Where will you be in all of this? Answer that question correctly and it can make all the difference.

There’s a Cool Breeze…

blowing through the windows as night settles in on my neighborhood. It’s the kind of cool breeze that whispers of a summer fading and the autumn to come. Short warm days, cool and dark nights, everything settling in its seasons.

Its been hot and dry and dry and hot for what seems like forever. The grass is dry, we all are dry, and yet the sky has been hard and brittle, yielding its life in dribs and drabs. Nothing of substance has fallen for days. A week without rain is a vacation. A month without it is a disaster in the making. Every promise of something good has been in vain. Every prediction has been in error. Every vision of relief is a mirage.

I, too, am hard and brittle, dry without and within for what seems like, well, who knows how long. I am tired and worn but not afraid. Sometimes overwhelmed but not conquered. Like the grass that turns brown knowing  the rains to come will restore its lush and fertile green, I too, wait in my thirsty brown cover. I wait for the God who causes the rain to fall on the evil and the good to let his rain fall on me.

And as I write this the cool breeze of this night reminds me that even the fury of summer’s drought is not eternal. A few more days, perhaps, and the rain will come, for the world outside my little house in the city and, as God is merciful, for me as well. Until then I, and the hard brown world, will wait.

For My Brother…

who passed into glory on this day and is not forgotten either here or in heaven.

 

4: 7 But the righteous, though they die early, will be at rest.
8 For old age is not honored for length of time,
or measured by number of years;
9 but understanding is gray hair for anyone,
and a blameless life is ripe old age.

10 There were some who pleased God and were loved by him,
and while living among sinners were taken up.
11 They were caught up so that evil might not change their understanding
or guile deceive their souls.
12 For the fascination of wickedness obscures what is good,
and roving desire perverts the innocent mind.
13 Being perfected in a short time, they fulfilled long years;
14 for their souls were pleasing to the Lord,
therefore he took them quickly from the midst of wickedness.
15 Yet the peoples saw and did not understand,
or take such a thing to heart,
that God’s grace and mercy are with his elect,
and that he watches over his holy ones.

=The Wisdom of Solomon-

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