Recently I spent several hours in a pediatric Emergency Department waiting room, seeking care for my son. Many things struck me as I reflected on that evening, but one thing stayed with me: the crowded waiting room included many young families who were poor. Their children were sick. But the phenomenon was like what I witnessed 25 years ago, while working for the University of California. Our medical center was the safety net for Orange County, CA. Many folks without access to care or benefits would come to the ED for all their care (urgent and non-urgent). We held many a conference with brilliant health care leaders, struggling to figure out how to offer good, accessible care in neighborhoods rather than in the Emergency Department. This would mean better health outcomes for patients and families and be less expensive.
And yet here we are 25 years later with the same phenomenon. Clearly the “machine” is paying off for enough in power to prevent meaningful change from happening.
St. Clare of Assisi, and those in her order (now called The Poor Clares), dedicated their lives to serving the poor and caring for the sick and marginalized. They did it not because it was profitable or easy, but because it was the loving and compassionate thing to do.
O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty may be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Clare, may serve you with singleness of heart and may love and care for all our neighbors as ourselves, regardless of their station in life, through Christ our Lord and the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This dear saint –The Rt. Rev. Charles Lovett Keyser — served as the fourth Bishop Suffragan for the Armed Forces and, upon retirement, served generously in the Episcopal Diocese of Florida. Many are in a position to say much more about his work and life. However, as one who has been shaped and formed through my experience of Bishop Keyser, I feel compelled to share briefly.
Just a few of the ways he has blessed me:
Presence. Bishop Keyser shared the love of Christ wherever he went and with whomever he met. He was so full of the Holy Spirit, it was as if it oozed from his pores. I first encountered him when he came to meet with and advise the vestry on which I served. The dean and rector announced his departure and we formed a search committee. You could feel the anxiety and prickliness in the air as many had clear ideas about what type of leader was desirable. When Bishop Keyser joined us, when he sat with us, the presence of the Holy was palpable. All the tension and petty energy in the air dissipated. As if we understood God was present and patiently waiting our surrender. I felt that same sense of the Holy, as I sat in a church office asking him for any advise he might give a prospective seminarian. “Don’t do it, unless you really have to,” he told me. “If you go, keep in mind one of the most important things you’ll do is to teach folks to use this (he held up the Book of Common Prayer).”
Unflinching compassion. Bishop Keyser was taken with the power of sharing Christ with those on the edge or treated unjustly. Seven years ago, at General Convention, he asked me to find a Black Lives Matter pin for him; true to our baptismal covenant, he was excited by this new and renewed focus on racism and equity. He was Franciscan in his approach of preaching often but using words only when necessary. He understood that the most transformative evangelism comes not when we hit folks over the head with Jesus or the Bible but when we help create and hold a sacred space in which the Spirit can move. His leadership in bringing Wounded Warriors to Camp Weed and his deep affection for Church Without Walls speaks to this. Clearly, he was deeply formed by his service in the Armed Forces – a place where a nice tame Christianity is worthless, where permission to abandon ourselves to a God in whom we may not believe or who we imagine has abandoned us to utter darkness is most meaningful, most raw, and most hopeful.
Servant leadership. Bishop Keyser’s commitment to pastor and love all people made him a quiet yet powerful leader. It was never about him or what he needed. Rather it was about the person or people in his midst. When I was in seminary, it was often a lonely time, and the work was very demanding. I had dutifully written another Ember Day letter to the bishop, checking off another box. Much to my surprise Bishop Keyser, who has covering during an episcopal sabbatical, wrote to me. He said nothing about my coursework, ministry internship or academic plans. He simply shared a deep love and caring for me as a child of God. His words buoyed me, reminding me I was there for a reason and that Christ was at the center, holding me, recreating me. To the end, his concern was always for the other. This gentle giant was a true pastor not just for the Church but for all people.
Sometimes, when we are in the thick of a struggle or crisis, we lose perspective. That is perfectly normal. When we are able, stepping back can help us find new eyes to see. This can be a great gift of sabbath time. This is my prayer.
My son and I were awed as we drove through miles and miles of redwoods, and as we visited Muir Woods. Daron is pictured here at the foot of a tree that has lived more than 1,000 years. It is not possible (at least not with my iPhone camera) to capture the full height of this beauty or of countless trees as we made our way through forests, winding our way north toward Oregon.
I am moved to silent reverence as I contemplate the difference between the limited perspective of my son’s short life (and mine for that matter) versus the wisdom of a tree that has lived a millennium, that has witnessed so much.
It is easy to become the effect of our immediate life experience, to get highjacked by it whether we perceive our circumstances as positive or negative, or as a source of hope or of despair. It is important to remember that while we have our experience we are not our experience. Though it may not seem so in the moment, we are simply beloved creatures made in the image of the One who has created everything that is. Though it may not seem so, we are held tenderly in the Heart of all hearts.
Recently my son and I went on a 3-day pilgrimage to Selma and Montgomery. We were part of a small, diverse group of clergy leaders from Jacksonville. This gracious group welcomed my son, who joined us everywhere, including in the sacred circle of listening and sharing we formed upon arrival and which we returned to throughout our journey.
This was a time of challenge, discomfort, grief, and angst. It was also a time of great hope as we committed to one another to continue meeting, sharing, and growing. As one participant stated: “For me this is not a ‘one and done’.”
Pictured here is my son in a park at the edge of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which memorializes victims of lynching. Ida B. Wells has described lynching as our national crime. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she reported courageously on crimes of lynching, providing essential documentation for executions that might not otherwise be traceable.
My hometown of Jacksonville, FL continues to do the work of identifying, researching and memorializing victims locally that also are remembered at this site in Montgomery. I will continue processing and leaning into this work. I know in many ways I am just at the beginning. Discomfort is a given. Discomfort is a small price to pay as we acknowledge and begin healing from these collective crimes and the residual continuing impact of racism on all of us regardless of the color of our skin or our “social location.”
Imagine the discomfort of one who was lynched for the supposed crime of vagrancy. Or of those pursued by angry mobs who participated in — and witnessed by the thousands — their vicious torture and executions.
If this topic makes you uncomfortable, I say Hallelujah! Join us in this messy, awkward journey of collective healing. Join us as we uncover and discover the deep roots and legacy of racism and oppression in our midst. We must persist.
Tomorrow marks three weeks of this sabbatical season. Entering into this space has been incremental and will continue to be so; it wasn’t until two weeks in that I began to feel I’d arrived at the beginning of this journey.
Rest, prayer and an embrace of slowing down and practicing presence are the fruits so far. No amazing insights. However, I will share a special verse from Nan Merrill’s contemplative translation of Psalm 119, prayed yesterday with a beloved friend, the mother guardian of the Little Sisters of St. Clare:
Recognize your anger as unfulfilled desire, and lift your thoughts to higher planes; For those who act out of anger separate themselves from Love; While those who live in harmony shall know peace, assurance, gratitude, and love.
Anger is an emotion we are given as part of our creation. It can be a teacher. A useful tool, inspiring us to take stock and at times to take action. It helps to remember that while we have anger, hold anger, even sometimes feed anger, we are not our anger. We are beloved children of God, designed to radiate Love. When we allow ourselves ultimately (in God’s perfect timing) to make room for this reality, we become complete.
This morning I watched the sun rise over the Atlantic. The first full morning of my sabbatical time — a much needed respite and time for exploring with my son. He is in film camp while I am left to enjoy the beautiful salt air. “The first step to learning to respond well and appropriately to others is to learn to respond well to yourself,” a friend aptly shared. The theme I am bringing into this season involves renewing, refueling and putting the oxygen mask on myself first. It is about coming to know self in a deeper way, with compassion and love.
This summer’s journey will entail a road trip to see dear friends in Savannah, precious time with Cousin Fred on Beech Mountain and with cousins Don and Ben in Virginia. I’ll also spend time in Birmingham, AL, deepening my understanding of the deep roots and pervasive sin of institutional racism. My son and I will watch the San Francisco Giants play ball and take a road trip up the coast to Washington State, where I’ll spend time playing, praying and worshipping with my beloved Little Sisters of St. Clare. As the summer unfolds, I will share photos, art and a few words when inspired. In the meantime, may we be awash with this blessing from St. Clare:
Live without fear. Your creator has made you whole, always walks with you, and loves you as a mother. So follow the good road in peace. And may the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with us this day and forevermore. Amen.
After the Christmas break, my son began attending a new elementary school. The decision to move was not made lightly but transitions can be challenging. As we moved through the first few weeks, I prayed a lot and there were tears all around. And yet the staff of this school have been outstanding: supportive, compassionate, firm when necessary – but always loving. As my son and I found our way, I never once doubted that the teachers and staff had his best interest at heart. Within two weeks, we knew the head of security, the nurse, the counselor, the front office staff, the bus driver and the teachers: A village of support and care.
Just yesterday, I picked my son up early from school for an appointment. It was great to see Mr. B and Miss G. They shared my excitement at my son’s progress in adjusting to a new environment and routine. Just that morning he’d told me “I don’t go to school because I have to. I go because I want to.” I shared that with Mr. B, and he was filled with a palpable joy. He said “I love your words! I don’t know what it is, but I always love your words.”
I was surprised and grateful, considering that at the beginning of term, I was often frustrated by the time we got to school. Transitions are challenging and can bring up all sorts of fears and anxiety. Yet it is a relief to imagine that I had shared hopeful words even on those days. Not because I am some spiritual giant. But because I move in a community of the faithful. And the willingness of Mr. B and others to meet us where we are was life-giving to me – and in turn must have evoked a life-giving response from my tired, frazzled self.
Words always have an impact. They are informed by the company we keep and the community in which we move. My congregants and our outreach volunteers will attest that I am fond of saying “All ministry is mutual.” In these challenging times, we are all pandemic weary. This weariness, combined with an already highly divisive political and social environment, has resulted in a perfect storm. We needn’t look far to find folks who will welcome another with whom to commiserate. We needn’t look far to find platforms for venting frustration and anger, for tearing down rather than building up.
Still, if we are intentional about it, we need not look far to find dialogue that is uplifting, that generates a sense of welcome and care. That is life-giving.
Where and with whom we choose to spend our time and energy is important. There is a ripple effect, and it is mutual. Words do matter – and they are informed by our choices.
We enter a New Year with a sense of caution but also with great hope.
Recently someone asked me what title I might give the year 2020. The first thing that came to mind was “holy grit.” Many of us have learned in a new way what it means to dig deep to mine the dregs of our spiritual and emotional reserve. It is messy, exhausting, and at times desperate.
I have watched friends walk through painful events – things that, under more ordinary circumstances would be extremely trying: loss of loved ones to cancer, to COVID, to alcoholism and addiction. Loss of jobs, delay of opportunities that this time last year had been within reach. In June a man in our pantry line shared that he was next to be rehired at his company – just as soon as the pandemic is behind us.
The tragedies and challenges have at times seemed unjustly harsh and relentless, wreaking havoc, one after another. In moments of utter exhaustion and emotional depletion, when it can seem that the universe is unnecessarily cruel, how do I explain to someone in the midst of their suffering that God loves them? That Christ is with them?
At this writing I just learned of two friends who had to say goodbye to a cherished adult son, who was on life support following a sudden cardiac event. Life can be so cruel. Surrender is the only way through. To trust that somehow God will make a way for us. Somehow there will be enough to sustain us. An old friend long gone used to say “You always get what you need but never five minutes too soon. Never a nickel more.”
A stable with a manger: definitely not a nickel more for Mary, for Joseph. Yet they surrendered though the circumstances were not ideal, were not what they imagined or dreamed. When the angel Gabriel visited Mary, marking the beginning of a series of events that would forever change her life, forever change the world, she responded May it be with me according to your word. Even as she agreed, Mary surely could not imagine how all that she was told would come to pass, how events would unfold over the years. If she could, she may not have said yes.
We will always have questions, many unanswered at least in the ways we’d like them answered, especially when the heat is on. For me this requires daily – sometimes moment-by-moment – surrender. It requires digging deep, leaning on prayer and an inner reserve of grit to keep going, to focus on what I can affect rather than being victim to those things outside my control.
We must dare to believe that the light shines most brightly in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. Sometimes, as we peer into the night of our lives, all we can find is the faintest glimmer, and sometimes only after much waiting, much seeking. But that glimmer is enough.