Free-Ranging together

This past week I went on an epic road trip, first to New York for a celebration of my niece's high school graduation and a wonderful gathering of extended family and friends. I saw so many loved ones, including the in-laws of my in-laws, second cousins once-removed, my 'uncle' who is not really a blood relative but who cares, he is family, and friends of my brother who I remember playing in the neighborhood when they were in fifth grade. It was the sheer bliss of a connecting web of relationships over generations.

Right after that I went to Richmond, Virginia and spent a couple days with my fellow Free Range Priests, Jay McNeal and Lisa Cressman, as well as Jay's wife, Kelli, a budding FrP who is just stepping into her new, exciting, ministry shoes. It was an intense, joyful, exciting time, and we shared a lot of what each of us is doing.

Jay runs United Faith Leaders, a website that helps people find clergy, and clergy share their ministry. He also has a fabulous podcast, Coffeepot Fellowship, where he talks with all sorts of people in ministry, across denominations, faiths, and experiences.

Lisa is the Founder and Chief Steward of Backstory Preaching, an online preaching mentorship program (where I help out a little), and she is writing a book, hosting several programs, including her current Preaching Summer Camp, producing amazing content online to support effective preaching, and making it all look easy!

We had a lot to talk about, including our hopes and dreams, and fears and setbacks. Being a clergyperson is a challenging vocation. Being a Free Range Priest is extra-challenging, because you are making a lot of it up as you go, following along an unclear path, and it can be lonely and isolating. A lot of our time together was spent just being together - sharing meals and morning runs and stories of our lives. Because so much of what we do is about this connecting web that I felt when I was in NY. We need to know we belong to something larger, a group that has our backs. I know I do.

'Community' is a word that is used so often I wonder if it loses its power sometimes. One reason I love being a Christian is that community is part of the fabric of it - Jesus called people from many different walks of life who came together to be his followers, and to take his word and message into the world. A lot of how they did that - and still do - is by simply gathering, sharing meals, talking and praying and singing together. This is still the way we feel the presence of God.

A lesson I am learning as I go about this Free Range Priest work is that even though I sometimes do feel alone, I never am. I am surrounded by the love of family and friends, and my work is supported by so many others around me. I am learning to rely on others in ways that are sometimes hard for me, but also help me feel connected, and remember that God is in the center of everything we do.




Holiday Family Therapy


(photo: Ross Caimano) My Uncle Bill died of pancreatic cancer in May. This past weekend the family gathered to bury him - with full military honors - at Arlington National Cemetery. When I say gathered, I mean streamed in from every direction, from as far away as Myanmar, in planes and trains and automobiles, in vans full of grown siblings and parents and cousins, to pay tribute to Bill's amazing life and to support his wife Jo and his kids and their families.

I counted at least 40 of us from Bill's extended family - his siblings: my mom and her remaining sisters and one brother; 10 of the 15 of us first cousins, some of our spouses and children and even parents. Plus Jo's siblings and their families. And some friends who feel like family. It was an amazing few days of eating, drinking, laughing and reminiscing. And the military service, in which I was honored to take a small part, was extraordinarily moving and precise, with horses and a band and a 21-gun salute. I have never seen anything like it, even though I have been part of scores of funerals in my time as a priest.

In truth, I probably saw Bill only a handful of times from my childhood on. We both spent most of our adult lives moving around to where our vocations have taken us. His youngest son - my cousin, Pat - is an adult with a wife and two kids, but the last time I saw him he was in pre-school (and I was in high school). We are not a close family, in the sense that most of our time is spent in different states, or countries. We came together last weekend from Missouri and Colorado, Florida and North Carolina, Maryland and New York and Kentucky and Tennessee and West Virginia and Washington state.

But I was reminded that time and distance are nothing compared with familial bond. We all laugh at the same things. We all tend to talk at once. There are stories. We get each other.

It's perfectly possible that the regular distance of miles and years helps us all be able to focus on each other's gifts rather than our challenges. A few more days of that level of togetherness and I am sure we would have found some faults with one another! But in the spirit of the moment, in remembering my very well-loved uncle, the glue of family filled the fissures that the years may have worn into that foundation. It was a gift and a healing, all at once.

Family gatherings are a well-worn path to both the joys and challenges of the holidays. This year my family gathered for a far more solemn occasion than most, and it reminded me that love really is the thing that endures, through life and death and distance and difference and time. It is not a cliche to say that it is the only thing that matters. It is a recognition.



The big feast is over, and hopefully everyone got through the meal with as much graciousness and gratefulness as possible! All week I have been offering suggestions for holy conversation, for time to really share with each other despite our differences, to do the work of peace. I hope that taking the time to listen, feel, and thank has lowered the stress and increased the real caring at your gatherings. My final thought on having conversations on tricky topics is this: give. After you have truly listened to your neighbor, after you have located your own feelings on what they have said, after you have thanked them for their sharing, then comes time to offer your own thoughts, your own gift of words.

And it is a gift. How we see the world and its complicated and beautiful issues is important. Sometimes I think our conversations - written and spoken, in person, in writing, online - would be much more productive if we always remembered the weight and the power of our words. What you say and how you say it can bring someone closer or push them away, can build bridges or destroy them, can enlighten or isolate. You have the power to make someone else laugh or cry or think or close off, all with your words.

'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' Jesus himself is referred to as God's Word. How we wield our language is a holy task, a faithful one, a ministry. It is a reflection of the love that made us and saves us.

So in these troubled and anxious times, when you think to yourself, 'how can I possibly make this better?', remember this: you can give your own thoughts, your own encouragement, solutions, arguments, support, stories and memories. Your words can make a difference. Use them.



Today is the day. Giving thanks is the whole point of this gathering. And when we are in the midst of people we may not know well, or people we may dread discussing certain topics with, it is good to remember. All week I have been posting about holy conversation, about how actually talking with each other, instead of avoiding hard topics, might make the world a little better, might bring us all a little closer to peace. A few guidelines make that easier, starting with listen, then feel. Today, appropriately enough, the step is thank.

This is how it might go: your neighbor across the table starts in on something you disagree with and believe he is misinformed about. But you listen anyway. You really listen, letting go of formulating a response in your head, and instead you focus on his words, and how he is offering them. What you hear may surprise you - there may be something deeply revealing about him, even under words that are off-putting. And this gives you a chance to understand him a bit better.

But maybe those words are very off-putting, and you feel offended, angry or afraid. Now is the time to feel those feelings, identify them in yourself. Instead of reacting, or trying to shut the other person down, you can simply say to yourself 'I am feeling upset by this.'

Then, when you do speak, no matter how you feel, you can start by saying, 'thank you.' Thank the other person for sharing something of who they are. Thank them for reminding you how passionate they are, how much they care about what is going on in the world. Thank them for being your friend or your relative, despite everything.

Holiday gatherings are a great opportunity to remember that we are not alone, we are all in this together. And we don't all agree, probably on anything. And most of the time, that is ok. We do not have to see eye-to-eye in order to love one another, in order to live in close proximity.

Appreciating one another, realizing we really cannot live without each other, is in fact not optional. No matter how far away they live, every human on the planet is ultimately my brother or sister, and realizing this is the key to peace. For Christians, this realization is a commandment ('love your neighbor as yourself').

For now, though, for today, it is enough to simply say 'thanks'. For this food, for this occasion, for this gathering, for this conversation, as hard as it may be. 'Thank you' for all that you are.



Yesterday's holy conversation advice was listen. Today, it's feel. Feelings are running very high in our current times, and have caused people to quit Facebook, Twitter and other social media. And made lots of us dread holiday gatherings, or even any gathering where sensitive topics might come up. The feelings we are having about them can seem overwhelming, even exhausting.

And this seems to be one problem with talking about deeper things - we listen to another espouse a view, and we hear something that makes us shocked, angry, afraid or offended, and we don't know how to handle this. Or else we react - we say something back that is simply an acting out of our feelings, and it just escalates the very feelings we are trying to avoid! And it does not lead to any deeper understanding or appreciation between us.

And that's why step two is simply to feel, and to be aware of our feelings. Sometimes it's hard to know what we feel. It's rarely 'nothing', but often enough, unless they are intense, we can be unaware of what we are feeling at a given moment. I try to stop at random times and ask myself, 'how do I feel right now?' and most of the time my first answer is 'I don't know.' I have to be really focused to get at the deeper sense of peace, or happiness, or anxiety, or whatever it is that is happening inside.

So when I am in a conversation that might be difficult, I try to be hyper-aware of my own feelings. And when someone says something that makes my anxiety or my anger skyrocket, I simply try to note it inside myself. 'I am angry', I literally say (in my head), and this gives me both some manner of control and also some insight into my part of the conversation. I can acknowledge my feelings without expressing them. I can choose how to express them. But I cannot do those things without first being aware of what my feelings are.

Part of learning to love my neighbor as myself, I think, is to love my neighbor enough to respond, rather than react, to them. And to love myself enough to understand what I am feeling.

It often seems to me that we treat feelings as somehow extraneous to the real work of getting things done, making things better in the world. We need to fight injustice, for example, never mind how we feel about it.

But I think that is exactly backwards. If we didn't hate injustice, we wouldn't be moved to fight it. If we did not feel compassion for victims, we would not care to improve their situation. If we did not love one another, we would not work so hard to live in peace. Feelings come first, then everything else. It is worth it to be aware of what ours are, and how we live with them.

So at the table, go ahead and ask your cousin how he feels about the election, listen to his response, and pay attention to how you feel. Then pass the potatoes. Until tomorrow...