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(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...
This is my second post this week about having holy conversation, instead of just small talk, at our holiday gatherings. You can read the first post here. When we think about conversation, we usually imagine people talking. But I think that the key ingredient, especially if the topic is difficult, should always be listening.
It seems that in this cultural moment, especially, so many people are trying so hard to be heard, and yet more and more it just feels like we are talking past each other, saying things that are not received. When we disagree, we stop listening as soon as the words come out of someone else's mouth.
This is why I think that listening is a holy practice. We can listen to each other without agreeing. We can momentarily put aside our own response and reaction and just strive to fully receive what the other is offering, whether we like it or not, whether it is correct or not.
This is true even if someone is saying something that we find offensive or frightening. We can still give them the gift of our attention, still see them as a fellow child of God.
This is the key to listening. I may not want to hear what you are saying, but I do need to acknowledge and respect that you are my neighbor.
And this is not really optional. As we are seeing in the world today, there is only so far we can push others away. We are still, ultimately, in relationship, in a place where our actions have consequences for one another. Continuing to refuse to respect others' personhood only escalates our division and alienation.
Again, we do not have to agree with what another is saying. We can absolutely oppose what we feel is wrong. But we cannot dehumanized one another, and to remember this, we can practice looking them in the eye, calming our breath, clearing our mind of what we want to say, and just listening.
Underneath the words, even hurtful ones, we might also hear our neighbor saying, 'I am angry', 'I am afraid', 'I feel alone'. These might be things we share in common.
And so, when we are close, when we are sharing conversation at holiday gatherings, at festive meals, we have the chance to practice really listening to those we love.
We all know, whatever topic we have agreed to avoid, will eventually come up, even indirectly. Or that one person will start in on that thing they always say. Or something will go wrong and it will be the fault of that particular group of people, according to some.
Instead of reacting, instead of ignoring, we can decide to be curious about the opinions of our neighbors holding them.
'How exactly does that work, grandma?' 'Where did you read that, Milton?' 'I would like to know more about that, dear.'
I know. This year, of all years, we are dreading being around the table with a certain aunt, or a very old family friend, or a group of strangers, and having to talk. About something, anything, other than that. Politics. Religion. Various lifestyle choices or eating habits. Whatever it is, there will be strong opinions. Whatever it is, there will be eye-rolling. This year, there may be raised voices. And there is lots of advice about how to avoid it - the awkward conversations, the heated subject matter.
But I don't think we should. This year, of all years, is the time to consider that holiday tables may be places of real peace. Not the surface calm of pretending we don't have real differences, that we are not hurting or anxious about things.
But the real opportunity to look into the eyes, and grasp the hands, of people who really hold views that may confuse, disturb, even frighten us, and to love them anyway. To offer them another slice of pie, even. And to talk. Really talk. Really listen.
This is a time of real division in our national community. I don't know a single person who is not concerned about some aspect of our common life. And a lot of that concern comes from feeling helpless to change things, feeling dismayed that collectively, we don't really know one another.
And I am convinced we can make the world a better place, one holy conversation at a time. I am convinced that holiday gatherings are a perfect place to start practicing our skills - learning to listen, feel, share, thank, and give. To really see one another as brothers and sisters, even if we disagree.
I am so convinced that if you let me, I am going to walk with you through the practice this week. We can change the world, with one holy conversation at a time. And a little pie.
Those of us who go to church say this every week, and even nonbelievers know the words to the Lord's Prayer - 'forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us'. I have been thinking a lot about forgiveness this week, and not just about forgiving other people. I have been thinking about people I need to apologize to, people I hope will forgive me for how I have wronged them. And how, when I feel most alienated from others, I realize that the first thing I need to think about is where I have gone wrong in the situation. This may seem counterintuitive, but I think of it as the paradox of the Gospel: forgive me, and this helps me see my way to forgiving you.
There is so much talk about the divide our country is experiencing right now, and how much fear and anger there is, and how people are talking at each other and talking past each other, but not talking to each other. And not listening. I think a lot of that comes from the feeling that we have been wronged, and we want others to apologize for their hurtful attitudes, words, and actions. I think it is not nearly as easy to recognize our own. Not one of us is completely innocent of judgment, condemnation, and assumptions of uncharitable intentions against some of our brothers and sisters. Even if only in our hearts, there are those we hold in contempt.
If we want peace- and we all seem to want that - I think the place to start is with our own apologies, our own seeking forgiveness from others.
And yes, I know, some sins are more egregious than others, and there is no comparison of violent thought and violent word or deed. But then again, sin isn't necessarily about comparison. My own confession of sin does not negate, or even lead to, my neighbor doing the same. But it works the other way, too - just because I have simply judged another in my heart does not mean I have nothing to confess.
'Your sins are forgiven', Jesus says to the paralyzed man in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but the man doesn't ask for forgiveness, just healing. It seems that many of us are seeking healing right now for the things that are dividing us. It may be that beginning with our own sins, our own need for forgiveness, will be part of that healing as well.
I am willing to find out.
Last week, I did something I swore I would never do again - I voted. I talk a lot about not voting, and I don't feel like anyone actually listens, they just try to tell me why I am wrong. I don't feel like it is wrong to not want to participate in what feels like a great divide: us and them.
None of us understand how they could possibly vote for that person, not with the way they act, how they would govern. What it would mean for them. If my candidate wins, I think they would get used it, because things will be better now (at least for me). But if my candidate loses, then all I can think of is how hard I will try to make sure they lose next time, so that we can win (no matter what it means for them).
It is maddening to me, and whatever I do, I feel like I am forced into a place where I see some of my brothers and sisters as something other than my neighbor, and where I see their opinions as wrong, their choices as misguided. This does not seem like living in community to me, and it does not seem like democracy, either. It seems like an empty shell of a system that once invited us all to participate in how we would live in peace, and now just feels like one side will prevail at the expense of another. And particularly this year, it feels like whoever prevails in the election will not be someone who is wholeheartedly supported, even by some of those voting for them.
So why would I vote this year, of all years? I guess the only answer I can come to is that I realize I cannot stand outside of this system, even if I may want to. I am certainly not proud of voting, and will not be happy, no matter what the outcome. Because no matter what the outcome, there will still be sadness and outrage. And maybe that's why I did vote. I won't absolve myself, but instead I will ask for forgiveness, from all my neighbors who feel differently from me, from all those who are 'them' in my mind - the ones I think I have to fear for their opinions, their outlook on life.
Maybe this year I am convinced that this might actually be what community looks like - that if everyone really does get a seat at the table, that means I might be sitting right next to the person who scares me most. And that they, in turn, might be scared to sit next to me.
And we cannot do this unless we believe in a higher authority, unless we believe in the power of love that really can heal the differences we cannot overcome on our own. So I voted in order to say that I will take my seat, even though I don't want to. And I will believe in love, and I will ask my neighbor to forgive my sins, as I forgive theirs. And I will hope that something new, and better, will be born from this.
On January 1 of this year, I left my well-paying job to set out on my own and become Free Range. It has been an amazing time as I have been exploring what it means to be a priest in the world, not serving a congregation or any other institutional role. I have worked with several churches, a few clergy people, another denomination, and done lots of stuff online. I taught a homiletics class in Minnesota and I spent some time in Texas. I wrote a book, and I will have a new blog soon. All in all, it has been wonderful, if not quite lucrative, yet. What has not been so wonderful is that five months after I voluntarily left stable full-time employment, my husband involuntarily left full-time employment when the department he worked in at his company was restructured. So for the past several months, we have both been free range! And we continue to be, as Jeff still looks for new opportunities, and I continue to grow my ministry. It had been a real adventure.
Every day we pray, and every day we give thanks for our incredible blessings, especially our love, our family and friends, our health and well-being. So many people we know and love have faced challenges this year, so much harder than ours. We know it's just money we are worried about, which in the grand scheme of things is nothing compared to what is really important.
Still, feeling unmoored from the regular work and life schedule also brings questions for both of us: what am I being called to be and do? How do I offer my gifts to the world? What is, at its base, the meaning of security and safety? Lots of big 'meaning of life' type questions.
And lots of big God questions. We absolutely pray for guidance, and blatantly for work! And we know God loves us and that we are blessed with resources to carry us through this uncertain time. And beyond this, the question of what does God wish us to learn here? What is this time of waiting for?
I am not one of those 'everything happens for a reason' kind of people, and I don't believe that God ever asks us to suffer. But I do believe God is present in everything, everywhere, and so it is hard not to look for meaning when things are not going my way. To look for love.
And I have been so surprised by the love of those who have been praying for us, reaching out to us, and some amazing saints who have been helping Jeff, especially, with work leads and introductions. In the end, this is what we are both learning, I think: we are not alone. We are surrounded by love, and that is really what matters.
It will be awesome when this time of waiting is over, and we can move on with 'regular' life, whatever that looks like. I have high hopes for 2017. But in the meantime, we are both perfecting our sense of gratitude, and of patience (particularly hard for me!) and of faith. We are learning, every day, all the ways we are blessed. All the ways we are loved.