Friday, April 24, 2020

Whose Story am I Telling?

No matter how bad a day I have had, I make time to set up my coffee for the morning.  I tell myself, “I can face anything as long as I have coffee, first thing.”  I get up at 5:00 a.m., get my coffee, and say morning prayers, but then comes the next step in my ritual that derails my day: I read the news.  There is usually not much news in the morning.  Not much new happens while most of America sleeps.  But I am a news junkie.  As I progress through my local newspaper, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and 
Facebook (in that exact order) I get absorbed in the story of the latest political crisis I already knew about yesterday, but it is always nice to have a fresh take.  I read the stories of the tragedies of others — they can make me cry.  I become completely fascinated by a recipe for a simple five-ingredient Asian dinner I can make in just fifteen minutes in my wok.  And before I know it, I have burned through the entire morning.

It used to be easier when I had to rush off to work.  I did not have time for this.  Now, with the physical distancing required because of the danger of the Covid-19 virus, most of us are finding we have a lot of time on our hands.  To be honest, I have never done well with unstructured time.  I have always liked going to work.  It gives organization and purpose to my day.  Yeah, I admit I am not very spontaneous... well, I can be, but I have to plan for it.  I do that by sometimes leaving empty spaces in my calendar... but I admit those blank spaces make me nervous.  I used to think I was lazy, but the truth is I am very motivated when I am truly committed or interested.  It is just when I do not have a plan for work or a schedule of what I want to do, I have these default time-sucking behaviors I go to: read the news, read a book, nap.

What I have begun to realize is much of my life has been spent telling stories, but not my own.  I am telling the stories of others when I become engrossed in a political story.  I am telling the stories of others when I am moved to tears over the report of a family’s tragedy.  I am telling the stories of others when I do not take time to critically think through some clever meme on Facebook.  And while I am busy telling the stories of others, I am not telling my own.

Now, in general, there is nothing wrong with telling the stories of others.  For thirty years as a teacher, I told the story of an institution, public schools.  My story was the importance of an elementary education.  For eight years as a representative of the teachers’ association in my state, I told the story of the importance of teachers and students in our society.  For fourteen years now as an Episcopal priest, I have told the story of another institution, focused on the meaning of the church and faith and community.  To be fair, the stories of institutions like the school system, the teachers’ association, and the Church became part of my life, and I still believe in them.  You too have institutions you believe in whose stories have become entwined with the story of your life.

Unless you allow yourself to become a complete narcissist, it is also important to tell the story of the sufferings of others and the need for justice as we stand for what is right.  You have to be able to tell people’s stories and have empathy for their lives.  The problem comes when you begin to spend your whole life telling stories of others, but your own gets lost.  Sadly, I have often treated my story — my personal life and goals and values — as less worthy of being told.  Sometimes it comes out in simple ways: My desk at work is spotless, but my desk at home is a disorganized pile.  Sometimes it comes out in deeper, more complex ways: I have not pursued dreams I have had since I was a young man because those other stories — usually about work — were more worthy of being told than my own.  I am afraid I have been so busy telling the stories of others, I hardly recognize my own some days.

The last thing I want to do is give another person a step-by-step list of how to begin to tell your own story; I am just beginning to learn to tell mine.  But I know the place to start is by realizing every morning the most important story you can tell is your own — not the newspaper's, not an institution's, not your boss's, not a politician's.  What you value and how that shapes your time and attention is a critical story the world needs to hear. 

There are a lot of important stories to be told in this world, stories of bravery and suffering, of triumph and defeat, of courage in the face of despotic power, and so many stories of love and compassion that feed our souls and make us better people.  Still, your story is just as worthy of being told and is as important to our world as any other, but only you can tell it.

Friday, April 17, 2020

$17.00 in an Envelope

     I snuck into the Church office at 5:30 a.m. on a Thursday to complete the last grim ritual of retirement… cleaning out my office. What with the Covid-19 virus and the importance of physical distancing at this time, I was not going to take a chance on meeting someone.

     Going through my drawers putting things into boxes, I discovered a couple things: First, I am apparently a pen hoarder (or worse, maybe I stole them from others.) No single human being needs that many pens in that wide a color selection — blue, black, green, red, even orange and purple. Second, in the lower side drawer, I found a nondescript, white envelope with $17.00 inside.

     It took me a moment, but then I remembered. This used to be Barbara’s envelope. She was an
elderly woman who lived month-to-month on a meager Social Security check. Like many folks who make a marginal living, things often got tight toward the end of the month before her check would arrive. As her priest, she would approach me for help, always embarrassed, always grateful. She never asked for much… one week it would be $5.00, maybe the next, $10.00. I told her she didn’t need to pay me back, but she would not accept it unless I agreed that she could. She had her pride, and I was careful to honor it.

     But the bookkeeping! There is not a church of any stripe I know that has not had an issue with money going missing somewhere in its past. For that reason, churches tend to have pretty strict policies about dealing in cash. I would give Barbara whatever she needed, but I had to put in a form to be reimbursed from my discretionary account. When she dutifully paid me back, I had to fill out another form and make a deposit. It got to be an awful lot of paperwork. Finally, I decided just to keep a Barbara envelope with $20.00 in my desk. When Barbara needed a little help, I had the cash; when she paid me back, it went back into the Barbara envelope.

     I had not thought of Barbara in years. She traveled on to her greater reward long ago. But just for a few moments, I sat there alone in my empty office at the end of my career and thought fondly of her. And I know when I see her again, and we are surrounded by the angels in glory in that place outside of all places and in that time outside of all time, her first words to me will be, “I owe you $3.00.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The north wind is blowing...

“But still the clever north wind was not satisfied. It spoke of towns yet to be visited, friends in need yet to be discovered, battles yet to be fought…”   — The movie Chocolat, 2000

    Most often in life, the Holy Spirit does not appear as a blinding flash of light.  Rarely does it work
like it did when Jesus barreled over the future Apostle Paul on the highway into Damascus with a flash-bang, knocked him off his donkey, struck him blind, and then gave him a new purpose in life.  No, for most of us it is just that quiet sense of a new wind blowing through our lives.  That is how the Holy Spirit is often described in Scripture... as wind.  Sometimes it is the hurricane-force winds of Pentecost, but most times, it is just the soft, gentle blowing breeze outside of Elijah’s cave.  It is a feeling hard to pin down, a yearning, a gentle nudging.

     Now, after twenty-four years journeying with you, the wind is blowing again in my life.  Decisions such as retirement are difficult, especially when you are a person like me who is even intimidated by the towering shelves of butter at my grocery store — there are just too many options.  But I do think sometimes we hesitate to make a choice because we worry too much about making the exact right one.  While there are always obviously bad choices in life, and we have been given brains and wisdom to think about the pros and cons, still, it seems more likely we have ten or more perfectly good choices branching out from any given moment.  Some choices may be better, some worse, but all are equally blessed by God.  It is my impression God may nudge us with the Spirit, but then is curious… which way will we choose?

     With my retirement this Easter, the wind is nudging me into a new phase of my life where I plan to focus on two things I love:  Playing cello and writing.  I have kept this blog since 2009, but have been terrible about updating it in the past few years.  I hope to change that now that I will have more time.  You can follow my latest scribblings here, which will certainly not all be about church stuff.

     There are no words to express my love and admiration for all of you.  You gave me a spiritual home here at Trinity over two decades ago, and we have walked together beside still waters and, at times, through troubled ones.  After a long pastorate, the Church asks priests to step away from their churches for at least a year both to give the new person a chance and to help us let go.  But I’m not leaving Reno.  As Jonathan Livingston Seagull once said, the whole point of our faith is we are overcoming time and space.  And when you do that, all that is left is here and now.  And in the middle of here and now, don’t you think we will probably run into each other once or twice?  Love each other.  Be kind.  Keep the faith.  And what blessing is mine to give, I leave with you.