Much to my own surprise, in 2017 I started a third course of graduate school in my lengthening professional career. I was 29 when I finished my first graduate program, 40 when I finished the second, and I’ll be 50 when I return to the workforce in 2020. This means that over the last twenty years, I’ve earned a lot of grades. I’ve also watched classmates earn grades, and we’ve all talked about the many anxieties that arise when serious students are getting letter grades for academic work.
Before I get too far from my life-changing experience this week, I want to remember and record the lesson I learned, which I'm sure I will have to re-learn several times before I die. Nobody teaches this lesson more eloquently than Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Here's her famous stanza from "Aurora Leigh." (Note: I am pretty sure the line "the artist is intensely a man" refers not to males, but to all humanity, which was the 19th-century meaning of the general term 'man.')
"TRUTH, so far, in my book;—the truth which draws
Through all things upwards,—that a twofold world
Must go to a perfect cosmos. Natural things
And spiritual,—who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift 5
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points. We divide
This apple of life, and cut it through the pips,— 10
The perfect round which fitted Venus’ hand
Has perished as utterly as if we ate
Both halves. Without the spiritual, observe,
The natural’s impossible,—no form,
No motion: without sensuous, spiritual 15
Is inappreciable,—no beauty or power:
And in this twofold sphere the twofold man
(For still the artist is intensely a man)
Holds firmly by the natural, to reach
The spiritual beyond it,—fixes still 20
The type with mortal vision, to pierce through,
With eyes immortal, to the antetype
Some call the ideal,—better call the real,
And certain to be called so presently
When things shall have their names. Look long enough 25
On any peasant’s face here, coarse and lined,
You’ll catch Antinous somewhere in that clay,
As perfect featured as he yearns at Rome
From marble pale with beauty; then persist,
And, if your apprehension’s competent, 30
You’ll find some fairer angel at his back,
As much exceeding him as he the boor,
And pushing him with empyreal disdain
For ever out of sight. Aye, Carrington
Is glad of such a creed: an artist must, 35
Who paints a tree, a leaf, a common stone
With just his hand, and finds it suddenly
A-piece with and conterminous to his soul.
Why else do these things move him, leaf, or stone?
The bird’s not moved, that pecks at a spring-shoot; 40
Nor yet the horse, before a quarry, a-graze:
But man, the twofold creature, apprehends
The twofold manner, in and outwardly,
And nothing in the world comes single to him,
A mere itself,—cup, column, or candlestick, 45
All patterns of what shall be in the Mount;
The whole temporal show related royally,
And built up to eterne significance
Through the open arms of God. ‘There’s nothing great
Nor small’, has said a poet of our day, 50
Whose voice will ring beyond the curfew of eve
And not be thrown out by the matin’s bell:
And truly, I reiterate, nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars; 55
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim;
And (glancing on my own thin, veinèd wrist),
In such a little tremor of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul 60
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware 65
More and more from the first similitude."
This summer I'm working as a chaplain in a large hospital, and the work includes eight overnight shifts, on site, with a pager. The pager determines whether I can rest, and often enough the answer is no. But there's a tremendous upside: wondrous things happen in a hospital. Not just terrible things and tragic things--though of course those are abundant--but truly wondrous things.
I've done a chaplaincy unit before, and I've worked for 20 years as a therapist, so I felt confident when I began this unit that I would be ready for the terrible and the tragic: stabbings, gunshots, strokes, heart attacks, the deaths of young people, car crashes, the works. I did not expect that I would be unprepared for joy.
I experienced what I call joy when working with one particular patient, and I will now share with you all the information I am permitted to share about that patient:
SOMETHING GOOD HAPPENED TO A PATIENT.
There. Now you know all you are permitted to know about the patient. What follows is 100% my information, my experience, and my interpretation of what I experienced.
The "something good" caught me by surprise, and challenged some core beliefs I have about God, the universe, human beings, and human suffering. When something significant happens to humans, we invariably try to make meaning of it. In 2007 my appendix burst just two weeks after I opened a small business, and I recall interpreting that as the universe challenging me, as if the universe (or God) were saying, "You want to do this small business? Really? Okay, well here's a curve ball. Let's see if you really have what it takes." I could have made much simpler meaning of that experience. I could have simply believed that sometimes an appendix will burst, sometimes it won't, and this is one of the times in human history that it did. That is an interpretation, simple as it is. I chose to make a bigger deal of it.
When this patient experienced "something good," I felt a powerful internal urge to make meaning of it, not only for the patient's sake, but for my own. To do that to my own satisfaction, I wanted to ask the patient what (if anything) they thought or felt about the experience. Since that's my job as a chaplain, I was ethically able to do so. Here is what I can tell you about what the patient said:
A PATIENT INTERPRETED AN EXPERIENCE.
There. Now you know all you are permitted to know about the patient's interpretation. Here is mine: to my own astonishment, 1) I believe that God was present with that patient, and with me; 2) I believe that God communicated something valuable to both of us; 3) I believe that our encounter with God was a true instance of a good, life-giving thing happening in the world.
This is astonishing to me because I am, by temperament, training, and formation, fairly reticent to attribute "good" events or "bad" events to God in this way. I do not often pray to God for direct interventions in human life. Usually, instead of healing, I pray for God's healing presence, which allows for a kind of loophole in case the particular healing I desire does not happen. I believe that God is present in both health and sickness, healing and declining, living and dying; but I don't pretend I know what God is doing. If patient A gets better and patient B dies, that does not mean God favored patient A. For me, it can't ever mean that. God easily becomes a monster if we are not careful with our prayers. So in this case, I was reluctant for a long time to attribute the "something good" to God in such a direct way. For all I knew, it wasn't even "good." But now I believe it was God who acted here, doing a particular thing, and that that thing was a good thing.
At this point some readers may wonder why I am in the religion business at all, if I can still be so astonished by God doing "something good" for a person. In recovery I am sometimes told to attribute all "good" events to my "higher power," most especially my sobriety, and to be grateful. I am sometimes told to even be grateful for "bad" events, or for suffering, because it's just another way God is doing something good for me. I am sometimes told that when another person suffers more than me, I am to be grateful because I could all too easily be "there but for the grace of God." But those interpretations don't usually work for me, not when I'm being truly honest. I just don't believe that God manipulates creation in that particular way. I believe instead that God 1) is always present, in times both good and bad; and 2) uses everything, including suffering and death, to bring about God's kingdom on the earth. Horrible things are horrible: genocide, abuse, violence, war, environmental destruction--these are all horrible things. Period. God does not want these things to happen. But when they do happen, God uses them; God is present with us in our response to them; God is invested; God, finally, is intimately concerned where all this trouble and tragedy and suffering will lead us. Dr. King said "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I like that. I think that works for me, and I think it fits with my take on all this.
But you know what? I just cannot easily shake the belief that here, in this one instance, God acted more directly. God was responsible for the "something good" the patient experienced. God was responsible for me being on shift when it happened. God made sure I would meet this patient. Only God sees all ends, but God saw fit here to act.
God acts all the time. I know that. I just share Job's hard-earned humility about the "why?!" questions. Why is there suffering? Why didn't God save those children from terror along the southern U.S. border? Why does patient A heal and patient B die? Why? Why?! When Job brought this question to God, he was told, basically, "Just who do you think you are?!" Message received: I am not God; I do not know the answers to the Why questions, and I should not presume that it is my business to know. I just need to pray for God's presence, God's peace, God's actions in God's time, and for God's purposes. And I need to pray that I might more readily be one of God's means of grace.
But man, something happened here. Something wondrous. Something that was literally jaw-dropping for me, and led me to weep in the hallway outside the hospital room. I wept with relief, I wept with amazement, I wept with joy. I was truly awed. The patient, for their part, did this:
A PATIENT EXPERIENCED AN EMOTION.
And that is the very last thing I expected to happen at this hospital. Like the women bringing spices to the tomb in the early morning, I just had no idea any of this was going to happen. Like them, I probably should have. But ... I didn't. But let me tell you, let me sing to you, this refrain:
Alleluia, something good happened, something truly wondrous and right and just, something amazing and awe-inspiring and joyous, alleluia.
This might be my fifteen minutes of fame. A professor at VTS, the Rev. Dr. Bill Roberts, encouraged me to submit my term paper for his Liturgical Music class as an article for the Journal of the Association for Anglican Musicians. It’s been published in time for Holy Week/Easter. It’s a description of the Exsultet, the song the deacon sings at the Easter Vigil to proclaim the Resurrection. It also includes my reflections on the role of deacon, a role I will always inhabit, yet only one of the calls I am answering.
Here's the article. It is posted here with permission, and was originally published in The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians, vol. 27, no. 3 (March 2018).
Okay then. I've lived in Virginia for a little over three months now, and I feel ready to post some reflections. There's a lot to say, and yet not a whole lot that would attract the interest of very many people. We are all more ordinary and unremarkable than we wish we were. In many ways I'm just another grad student, another seminarian, another not-so-young classmate ten years older than the median age. But the particular kind of homesickness I feel caught me by surprise, and might be interesting to people who know me, especially people who knew me 25+ years ago.
I'm not homesick for Seattle (yet). I'm homesick for Minnesota, and more specifically, the Lutheran Church. I never imagined that I would feel this way.
When I arrived at Virginia Seminary, I was adjusting quickly to tremendous change: closing my business, moving across the country, becoming the unpaid member of a one-income household, and starting graduate school for the third time. I didn't expect how old I would feel, but that's for another post. I definitely had no idea that I would long so nostalgically for my Lutheran upbringing.
I love being an Episcopalian (since 2005), and I'm happy to be on the Episcopal clergy roster (since 2010), but there I was in chapel on the day we celebrated a Lutheran liturgy of Eucharist, choking up and making eye contact with people in the crowd who I knew were Lutherans. I could hardly sing the service music from the Lutheran hymnal. I loved every minute of it.
Then this past weekend I went to a concert of the National Lutheran Choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and I wasn't captivated by the spectacular building. I was lost in a sad-yet-joyful dream of Lutheran choral music. And then VTS hosted a Lutheran Hymn Festival led by Gail Ramshaw, a Lutheran liturgical-language scholar, and one of my favorite authors. I felt like I was being called home.
And I signed up for a course next January at the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia. I can't wait.
All of this has caught me by surprise, but I suppose it's not so unusual. When people find themselves in new situations, it's normal for their minds and hearts to reach back to something familiar, something from an important time of personal formation. But I think it's about more than that. For me -- and this sounds a little heady, but bear with me -- I think it's Lutheran theology that I find most comforting and helpful right now.
I remember taking a class in systematic theology at the ecumenical School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University (a Jesuit school), in 2008. The class professor was a Catholic priest and theologian. I noticed to my surprise that this very Catholic scholar spoke about Martin Luther perhaps more than any other theologian in his curriculum. It became clear to me that Luther has taken his place among the best theologians in Christian tradition.
I think Luther holds a prominent place in Christian history for one important reason: he took very seriously the human need for God's grace. He was personally, viscerally aware of this need. Luther grew up with a stern father prone to great anger (this is not a biographical detail I share with him), and his Theology of the Cross emerges from that difficult personal context. For me, my appreciation of the need for God's grace is grounded in my identity as a person in recovery, but also in the grief and shame I have felt (and still feel) over certain painful personal experiences, and my own unfortunate choices that helped bring them about. (I was a slow learner in many ways.)
And so here I am pursuing yet another career, and I begin my studies here with many skills and positive experiences, but also some ghosts, fears, and deep regrets. I feel more than a little vulnerable, and even fragile. And so I turn to the Lutheran worldview, the Lutheran music I love, and the Lutheran imagination, for comfort and encouragement. I am working once again on the terrible reality of the profound weakness of human beings, and the good news of the immeasurable grace of God.
One of the tear-jerking Lutheran hymns I sing these days is this one, a classic, a text I would never be without as I do my spiritual work at this time in my life:
If you but trust in God to guide you
with gentle hand through all your ways,
you'll find that God is there beside you
when crosses come, in trying days.
Trust then in God's unchanging love;
build on the rock that will not move.
What gain is there in anxious weeping,
in helpless anger and distress?
If you are in your Savior's keeping
in sorrow will he love you less?
For Christ who took for you a cross
will bring you safe through every loss.
The Lord our restless hearts is holding,
in peace and quietness content.
We rest in God's good will unfolding
what wisdom from on high has sent.
God, who has chosen us by grace,
knows very well the fears we face.
Sing, pray, and keep God's ways unswerving;
offer your service faithfully.
Trust heaven's word; though undeserving,
you'll find God's promise true to be.
This is our confidence indeed:
God never fails in time of need.
--Georg Neumark; tr. composite, as found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
People have been asking me that question for a couple of months now, because there are so many changes going on, major changes, and life won't really settle into a new normal before autumn. Most of the time, I really don't know how to answer this question. This is unusual for me, but I really don't know how I feel these days. "Are you excited?" people ask. Well, yes, I think so. "Are you sad?" Yes, certainly. Closing my business was part of the plan, and the right decision for this time in my life, but it was a loss. I will miss my clients. I sometimes think that after nineteen years as a therapist, I was finally starting to get pretty good at it. As much as I look forward to the next career, and the excitement and challenge of launching that, I have some grief about the endings in all of this.
I'm here in Williamsport, PA with friends and colleagues Dan Morrow and Caroline McCall. We're leading a short workshop on congregational development for the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania. Lots of lay and clergy church leaders are looking for ways to grow their churches, or to improve their organizational health and sustainability. These tools help them work together to achieve their goals. And - the weather today is perfect!
This short article was written sometime in 2014 to answer a question many people--inside and outside church life--ask: What is a deacon?
Each day in in the seven last days of Advent, an antiphon is appointed to be sung alongside the Song of Mary (Magnificat) at Evening Prayer. Each antiphon borrows an image or metaphor from the Hebrew Bible that reveals something about God. These antiphons have come to be known as the "O Antiphons," and inspire the text of the popular Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." I reflected on these images and wrote a few thoughts about what the images mean to me.
Today I did something I haven't done for nearly a year and a half: I took a chalice at Holy Communion, brought it to my lips, and drank from it. Don't worry: it wasn't wine. It was grape juice. What follows is a reflection from my own perspective: deacon, psychotherapist, lifelong participant in Protestant churches (Lutheran and Episcopal), and alcoholic. (I also studied sacramental theology about four years ago, and I read things, but don't expect the latest in the field here: this is just me sharing some of my experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Note also that I take to heart a line from page 103 of the Big Book of AA: "...we have stopped fighting anybody or anything. We have to!" This is not a manifesto, an argument, or the last word on anything. Take it or leave it.)