Open hands.

(Photo taken near St. Augustine, FL.)

(Photo taken near St. Augustine, FL.)

Last night I dreamt I was travelling somewhere – with my former roommate Lisa and our friend Ashley and possibly one other soul or two. We arrived at our initial destination by what means I know not. A plane? A glider? A hot air balloon? Our landing was smooth, gentle, effortless.

Suddenly I was in wide-open space, the flat ground covered with grass that was spare but green, the sky wide and blue with wisps of cloud. I could see a city in the distance and a vast ocean to my right. I looked around and saw the bay and waterways close at hand and, as I ran toward the edge of grass, a cement walkway – a tiny boat ramp — rose up, leading into the water.

I was mesmerized as gorgeous, huge fish leapt out of the water, one with a silver-white body, with a jagged streak (perhaps lightening?) running its length.

There was a man with a young boy splashing in the water, delighted by the activity. Gorgeous turquoise and brilliant sapphire blue flying fish leapt out of the water, dancing in front of us. I began to shout with joy and awe — Look! Look! – and glanced back to be sure my friends could see what was happening but they must have had other business to tend.

Then the man stepped onto the far end of the ramp, looking at me, his hands held out, open and receptive. You have an amazing voice, he told me. I wondered to myself, What does he mean, you have an amazing voice, for I have often been uncertain about the tenor and power of my voice. I didn’t ask the question aloud but the man seemed to have heard it anyhow.

Do you see what has happened, he asked. My son heard your voice – the power and joy of it – and suddenly he wanted to be with his mother. And suddenly I was aware of a woman also in the water and of the young boy who had climbed into her arms. I felt a mix of intense longing and delight. They shared the joy of being together in this amazing place of wonder as sunlight and fish danced on the shimmering sea. They found themselves and each other and, as I took this in, I found some lost part of myself. I found a sense of strength and power that was healing for me because it was rooted and grounded in generosity and love.

Some time after this encounter, I caught up with my friends. We broke bread and shared with one another all that we could of what each of us found through our respective adventures that day.

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Communion happens.

(Photographed in the “garden of hope” at Clara White Mission, Jacksonville, FL.)

Last night my dear friend Ian, who a couple of weeks ago staged a production of Godspell to benefit Church Without Walls, shared a wonderful story with me:

This week he was downtown with several Godspell cast members as they prepared for a fabulous production of Spring Awakening this week.

The group had just bought sandwiches and were headed to Heming Park to enjoy them.

Then, suddenly, they heard someone shout “Godspell!”

They looked up to see one of our Church Without Walls parishioners, who is not hard to recognize, with his sometimes awkward gate and flourish of tattoos. This man had attended not one but two performances of Godspell and was so moved that he brought others from his camp to experience it the second time.

During this happy exchange, one of the young actors tore his sandwich in half and shared it with this man as the group found a place to sit together and share a common meal.

Moments like this make the day-to-day work of building community — of being church – worthwhile.

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Close moments.

(Icon written by Eduardo Santana of Bolondrón, Cuba, and generously gifted to me on my last Sunday at St. Francis In-the-Field.)

(Icon written by Eduardo Santana of Bolondrón, Cuba, and generously gifted to me on my last Sunday at St. Francis In-the-Field.)

It has become a spiritual practice for me to reflect upon my life experience and to identify “close moments with Christ” – those times when I sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in the midst of day-to-day living.

Today has felt for me like one of those “thin places,” where heaven and earth come together.

Close moments came as I visited friends, who showed up at our Church Without Walls to worship and give thanks just two days after having their camp dismantled, without notice, and all their worldly possessions confiscated and destroyed.

I felt the closeness of the Creator when a sweet pup allowed me to rub her belly as she lay in the grass exhausted from all the disruption and upheaval.

Another close moment came when a friend reached out to me, as he struggles to have integrity with his word but worries about giving offense to those who may not agree with him.

I witnessed the love of Christ as a friend wept with relief upon hearing word of another who had been missing for several days.

During worship, Jesus made himself known when friends from the L’Arche community exuberantly joined us in singing Amazing Grace. “I learned how to sing today,” one of our regulars commented. The freedom to be ourselves and to love in the moment is clearly a gift from heaven above.

May we recognize those “close moments” in our midst and trust that the One who created everything that is means it when he calls us friend.

My apologies to those who follow this blog fairly consistently for being silent this past month. It has been a busy and demanding time for me — a time in which I sense the Spirit working in me. I am hoping to write more regularly. But, in the meantime, I share these gifts of encounter and experience with you. Peace be with you.

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Open and undefended.

(Photo taken in my backyard.)

(Photo taken in my backyard.)

This is a personal reflection on my experience as a first-time deputy to the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church, which is presently convening in Salt Lake City.

We cannot receive new life — we cannot experience transformation — without becoming vulnerable. In his remarks to the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, Frank Griswold (who served as our 25th Presiding Bishop) called for each of us to have a “heart that is open and undefended in the face of different perspectives.” These are wise words.

It is unrealistic to imagine that we will ever agree on everything as a Church and a community of faith. Nonetheless, we are called to do God’s work of justice and mercy together – to be One in Christ. And, as our new Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry would be quick to remind us, we can agree on Jesus.

For the most part, the tenor of our conversations during convention has been respectful, inviting and loving. We start each day with Eucharist and worship, and our chaplain leads us in prayer multiple times each day as the House of Deputies and House of Bishops convene to do their work. This rhythm of prayerful worship, reflection and work as a community of faith, will inform my work when I return home.

Something that has surprised me – even to the point of awe – is the care and persistence of the legislative committees as they do the hard work of crafting and refining resolutions to be considered. Their meetings are open to observers and allow, at times, for testimony from those who care deeply about the issues under consideration.

Because the subject is near and dear to my heart, I sat in on the working meetings and open hearings of the special committee on “alcohol and other drug abuse.” This committee was formed very recently in part in response to the tragic hit-and-run accident in Maryland last December, for which Heather Cook (former bishop) has been charged with DUI manslaughter. The Church has not revisited its policy on substance abuse since 1983, so, even without such motivation, this work is well overdue.

This committee had only 4 weeks to do its work and, at convention worked tirelessly to craft three resolutions, which have all been passed by the House of Deputies, without opposition. Included in the resolutions is a call for dioceses and parishes to examine their own complicity in a culture of alcohol and to develop policies and mechanisms for promoting the health and wholeness of all parishioners, including those in recovery and those who may need help in addressing issues of addiction.

The effectiveness of this committee speaks not only to the persistence, openness and love of its members but also to the grace and movement of the Holy Spirit.

There is much work yet to be done on myriad issues as we continue to gather and consider hundreds of resolutions. We can all be encouraged by the love, generosity and sacrifice of these bishops, and lay and clergy deputies, and by the certain presence of a loving God in our midst.

Know that your prayers — regardless of your faith background – are desired and make a world of difference.

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May hatreds cease.

(Photo taken at Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Augustine, FL.)

(Photo taken at Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Augustine, FL.)

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p 823)

Today, for our “church without walls” service, I vested in red – the color of “the blood of Jesus,” as one parishioner noted. Only this day, the red signified also the blood of the 9 Christians brutally murdered at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last Thursday.

We spoke about this terror-filled event as a community, and I could tell by the expressions on some of the faces that they were hearing about this tragedy for the first time.

During the Prayers of the People, we prayed for the victims and for the shooter. We prayed for each other and for the Church. We prayed for tolerance for all people.

One congregant took me aside as we were waiting for lunch. “That was awful, Mother Beth. I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said of the shooting, as he shared his feelings of deep pain and upset. “And to think I was so full of hate just like that young man. It was bred into me,” he said of the racism he had been steeped in for much of his growing up, for much of his life (his neo-Nazi tattoos testified to this.)

“But look what Jesus is doing in you,” I remarked, as I looked into his tear-filled eyes. “You remind me that there is hope for all of us.”

This evening, as I mowed my yard, I found myself struggling with something more than grief. It became apparent to me that I carry a wound that can no longer be avoided. It is a wound that comes from the complicity of silence. From the weariness that says, “I haven’t the energy to deal actively with racial injustice; besides I have no idea where to start.”

Twenty-three years ago, I was in Los Angeles during the Rodney King trial, when police officers who were captured on video brutally beating Rodney King, stood trial for their actions. During the time of the trial, I happened to be sponsoring two African American women, who were in rehab. One Saturday night, we went to dinner and a meeting, and the two of them predicted that riots would occur. Blissfully ignorant, I interjected: “How can that be? The police officers are on video beating the man senseless with batons. Of course, they’ll be found guilty!” My friends cast each other a knowing glance as if to say: She may be our mentor, but we need to take the white woman to school. The following week, the riots unfolded in startling fashion from my perspective, but reflecting what was inevitable in my friends’ world.

Today, on Father’s Day, I remember to be proud of the work my father did as a federal judge in the early 70s, drawing up a busing plan to desegregate Duval County when the school board violated federal law by refusing to do so. Our family paid a price during those years. The tension of the time — having people protest and threaten to burn crosses in our front yard; having U.S. Marshalls live with us in our modest. 3-bedroom ranch house; being ostracized by classmates – was like throwing gasoline on the fire of my mother’s alcoholism. It heightened the ever-present sense of anxiety that surrounded us.

What my father did during that divisive, hate-filled time was important. It was a frightening period in our history, and doing the right, just thing took courage. But we had the privilege of having U.S. Marshalls protect us. And my father could have stepped aside, at any given time, like so many others chose to do. We had choices.

I have known my own form of fear, worrying as a child — when my father tried organized crime cases in the midst of threats — if my daddy would make it home okay. I’ve had a tiny taste of what it is to have people – mostly white folks – say hateful, threatening things. But I have never known what it is like to be afraid simply because of the color of my skin.

May the Holy Spirit awaken us to the reality that we are all wounded, we all suffer, whenever and wherever violence and hatred find expression. May Love make itself known in each of us, in our communities and in our world.

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“Through the wall of flame.”

(Photo taken in my dear friend Darlene's backyard.)

(Photo taken in my dear friend Darlene’s backyard.)

As a frightened man in a burning boat
has only one way to the rest of his life,
we must move with courage
through the wall of flame
into the greater sea.
— Mark Nepo, Book of Awakening, p 172

These words speak to a dear friend of mine, who is going through a harrowing health issue, who is negotiating an ever-shifting landscape full of unknowns.

These words speak to me as I struggle for clarity, and then seek to become willing to make room for all of its implications for my life when it comes.

The imagery of a wall of flame brings to mind the poetry of John of The Cross (known most widely for coining the phrase “dark night of the soul.”). A Spanish mystic, who spent much time in prison for his beliefs, John of the Cross wrote extensively on the growth of the soul. In his writing, the image of bold flames symbolizes loving and transformational union with God.

John of the Cross acknowledges what most of us have experienced if we have lived much in this broken world: in difficult and challenging times – times that cause one to face crucial questions including one’s mortality — it may seem like God is absent. But John calls us to remember that God is ever with us, that we are being prepared and transformed by love if only we will be present and lean into the experience as authentically as possible. If we will trust there is life and depth for us in whatever our circumstances, in spite of sometimes substantial evidence to the contrary.

A good sign for me that something is afoot — that God is shaking things up — is a growing resistance to sitting still in the Great Silence. In the midst of many blessings and meaningful work, I find myself restless, uncomfortable, and finally (after enough pain) driven to lean in again, to surrender to whatever it may be that God is unleashing.

This will be interesting.

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“It is finished.”

(Photo taken at Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Augustine, FL.)

(Photo taken at Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Augustine, FL.)

This reflection was offered as part of a series of readings and reflections on the last seven words of Christ at St. John’s Cathedral, Jacksonville, FL, April 3, 2015.

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’
Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)

“It is finished.”
When we hear these words of Jesus,
we are tempted to move quickly to
an explanation of their greater meaning.
We want to paint the big picture,
to say that Jesus has paid our debt,
has conquered sin once and for all,
has accomplished the work which the Father
sent him to do through his earthly life.
We want to fast forward to the celebration
of all that this signifies.

But it is not time for celebration.
We come this day to Golgotha,
to sit at the foot of the cross.
To be with Jesus as he bows his head,
as the blood and water – the last bit of life force —
flow from him.

Imagine being one of Jesus’s followers,
without benefit of the full story.
Imagine listening to him teach.
Imagine breaking bread with him.
Being close enough to witness miracles
of healing and deliverance,
close enough to witness the generosity of
a merciful God who feeds his people,
who weeps with us and comforts us.
Imagine sensing that this man from Nazareth
is the King of Glory.
Though this is a dangerous, turbulent time,
the excitement and promise of Jesus
tamp down our anxiety.

But in time trouble comes.
Jesus has attracted too much attention.
And following him has become dangerous.
Hopeful anticipation and expectancy are
crowded out by profound confusion
and fear as Jesus is arrested.
The sense that the end is near is palpable.
Any hopes of a new day are dashed.

“It is finished.”
To hear Jesus speak with such finality
must have been chilling.
I imagine in some form those words
reverberated in the hearts of the disciples
who had fled,
who dared not risk being present for Jesus’ execution.

When I imagine this scene, I cannot help but
think of our own Ben Clance.
Or of my social worker friend Sara Flynn Baldwin,
both of whom work on behalf of death row inmates.
Both of whom walk alongside prisoners,
praying, singing hymns, keeping vigil,
even witnessing executions.

A couple of years ago Sara asked me to
visit a young man who was waiting to be
resentenced for a series of armed robberies.
At age 16, Asa had been sentenced to life without patrol,
something the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional.
You cannot give up on someone
who’s brain hasn’t fully developed.
Asa and I visited over the course of a year,
and I came to know a young man who
was very bright and full of promise.
It is a miracle he was even alive.
His parents were crack addicts who began buying
him pot when he was 10.
After they turned him out onto the street,
a career criminal took him under his wing.

At the resentencing hearing, a few people
showed up to support this young man:
a social worker, a former teacher, an aunt.
After the sentencing, the judge allowed
him to turn his chair and face us,
to visit for a few minutes.
He had difficulty looking at us,
even as we assured him of our love.

A couple of weeks later, he told me:
“I felt so ashamed in that court room,
I couldn’t look at you.”
After waiting nearly 2 years for resentencing,
there was no more wishing for quick release.
Asa will be in his 50s before he is free.

If we live long enough most of us will have a time
where we feel that all is lost —
that “It is finished.”
The loss of a friendship or business or marriage.
Colossal failure, ethical breaches,
seemingly irredeemable mistakes.

Such pain and suffering is something
we want to avoid, whether it is our own
or someone else’s.
Sometimes I am no better than the disciple
who saw the writing on the wall and fled,
in search of a safe place to hide from the storm.
There are times I have walked away from
friends and associates, perhaps fearing
I’d be engulfed by their agony and shame.

But the love of Christ calls us to the foot of the cross,
to draw closer to one another in our suffering.
This is a place where there are no easy answers.
Just the reality of our own poverty,
emptiness, and defeat.

Jesus tells us we must take up
our cross and follow him.
Can we find it in ourselves to sit with the one
who has failed, who is shamed,
who seems lost beyond all recall?
And can we find it in ourselves to allow
another to see our naked suffering,
our utter hopelessness?

Yesterday I was able to hold the hand of a man,
whose body has been ravaged by addiction.
He was covered in tattoos.
When I first met Paul, he showed me where
the numbers 666 are tattooed on his eyelid.
He was adamant that there was no hope for him,
that he had done too much bad in his life.
“It is finished,” I could hear him say.
There is no more.

After a few months of attending Church Without Walls,
He began to receive communion.
Some weeks ago he began reading the scriptures
printed in our bulletins.
He prays every day and has felt
the Spirit come upon him.

I wondered aloud if he might consider
being baptized on Easter, and he resisted.
But when I explained that in baptism we share
in Christ’s death, this made sense to him.
He understands death.

In truth, we are each called to make room
for suffering and death.
We may deny it, but we all know it.
We come together to wait at the foot of the cross.
Because even if this were the end of the story,
even if there were no more to come,
being present matters.
To show up for one another.
To acknowledge suffering.
To affirm the end of our hopes and dreams.
These too are holy moments.
These too are sacred times.
Amen.

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Love abounds.

20130912-081725.jpgLast week I experienced disappointment and failure in a fairly public way. I also experienced a mind-blowing, heart-expanding outpouring of love and encouragement from friends, colleagues and loved ones.

Once again, I am reminded that, without risk and messiness, I would never know grace. I would not begin to comprehend mercy. I would not experience that creative Love that loves simply because love is its nature.

Last Tuesday, my friend Patrick and I laughed, cried and swore as we invented innumerable “crap” jokes on our drive home from South Carolina. We celebrated his success and my failure simultaneously with a delicious island feast, compliments of “Jamiaca Me Hongry, Mon” in Wadley, Georgia. It was pretty evident that the only other people to cross the threshold of that restaurant that day were the three employees who greeted us like long lost cousins. The gifts of presence, adventurous curiosity, and openness blessed us all. Blessed me mightily.

If that weren’t enough, I checked in with my home group this evening and was informed that, in my absence, all the guys had hatched a plan: they will be coming to Church Without Walls for Easter and will help with set-up and the meal. (You won’t want to miss that glorious service of worship and baptism followed by an incredible feast. You can trust me on that!)

The entire Creation was birthed in love and generosity. With each new day the Spirit shows itself gloriously, both as blessing and blessed.

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A third way.

(Photo taken of icon gifted to me by St. Francis In the Field parish.)

(Photo taken of icon gifted to me by St. Francis In the Field parish.)

Recently I was in a conversation with a friend, who expressed that he vacillates between two different ways of relating to me: blunt assertiveness or drawing back with a very passive stance.

I understand where he is coming from. But something about his assertion doesn’t ring true. Are there really only two options in how we relate with one another? Taking a step back, it is not hard to see the limitations of such a view. How about considering a third option? What if we were to agree to stop dancing that same old tiresome two-step? What if we were to try something new? And then, if that doesn’t work, to try something else?

There is nothing like that feeling of being set free after feeling confined and restricted by a habitual way of being in the world, of being with others. That’s not to say the new way isn’t pretty daunting at times. That’s not to say the new way won’t bring it’s own set of challenges. But, how wonderful it is to discover a third way – and to sense the possibility of limitless options if only we open ourselves to them.

My prayer this day is for courage, wisdom and possibility. My prayer is for inspiration and new dance steps, for the willingness to experiment with new ways of being on this new day. I pray for a renewed sense of hospitality and adventure and the grace and joy to allow each of us to try out new dance steps in a spirit of humility, tolerance and joy.

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“Bless these gifts.”

(Photographed in the "garden of hope" at Clara White Mission, Jacksonville, FL.)

(Photographed in the “garden of hope” at Clara White Mission, Jacksonville, FL.)

Over the past two or three days, I find myself needing to unfurl my clenched fist, to loosen my grip and let go.

I find myself longing to integrate parts of myself and my journey that might seem incongruent or incompatible from the outside looking in. Parts that have been discarded, forgotten or set aside. But these are steps on the journey, each bringing its own challenges. Each with its own gifts. Each of great value. I want to own and appreciate it all. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.

I was asked this week to describe my theology – my understanding and experience of God. The theme that dominated this conversation was “community.” Though I need regular times apart – times of quiet and reflection – I need the experience of community just as much. It is in community with fellow strugglers/seekers/truth-tellers that I am able to encounter God. And it is in the midst of loving community that I discover my deepest, truest self.

Sometimes you challenge me, and I feel caught up short. But that is part of the process. When you bring to the table all of your gifts – your struggle, your confusion, your passion and your hope – you are a blessing beyond measure. May we trust one another and God enough to remain in community, to invite the stranger, to stretch toward our best selves. May we discover, uncover and embrace all that God has for us.

Come, Lord Jesus, our guest to be,
And bless these gifts bestowed by thee.
Bless our loved ones everywhere,
And keep us in your loving care.

— adapted from a Moravian table prayer

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