Write down this phone number

Celebrating a year of doing great work

Celebrating a year of doing great work

A while back, I was reflecting with some folks in my parish about the language we use when we pray in church. One woman said that she finds it awkward to pray for “the poor, the lonely, the sick, and those in need.” She wisely reflected, “Who isn’t lonely, to some degree? Who isn’t sick or needy in some way or another?” Being human means carrying an ever-changing complexity of conditions all the time. And being a person of faith — any faith — means understanding yourself to be implicated in your neighbor’s suffering, loneliness, or poverty, and saying yes to the call to respond.

Praying in and alongside of suffering is important. But knowing where to refer someone who needs tangible help or expert care  is also important. A year ago, Watertown took a great leap forward by hiring a Social Services Resource Specialist named Danielle DeMoss. I met Danielle early on, and I keep her phone number right next to the phone in the church office. She is the go-to person when someone needs help and I’m not sure how to help them. If you live in Watertown, check this link and put Danielle’s number in your phone now!

The need for affordable shelter, food, mental health services, financial assistance, and other services is growing, growing, growing. The complexity of need is growing, too. I hope funding for Danielle’s position is at least maintained, ideally increased. I hope that all of us, when we go to the polls on Tuesday, cast votes that work for the relief of suffering rather than its perpetuation. And I pray that, even in the midst of our own personal hardships, we can link arms with those who truly need a boost to stay upright.

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Sound and Noise

A beautiful Wednesday on the dock

A beautiful Wednesday on the dock

“What is the difference between sound and noise?” My children were asked to answer this question as part of a homework assignment last week. Good question. Yesterday I took a break from a long to-do list to lie on the dock on the Charles River in Watertown Square and ponder it. I closed my eyes and soaked in with thankfulness the warmth of the autumn sun, stockpiling its energy for the grey days ahead.

I listened. I did that exercise you’ve probably done along the lines, in some yoga class or meditation training: “Try to identify all the different sounds you can hear.” Men chatting. Wind rustling through the trees. Big trucks rumbling over the bridge. An ambulance passing. And then the traffic — the constant whirr of car engines and wheels spinning across concrete.

Most of the time, eyes open, looking out across the Square, the sound of all this traffic is noise to me. I long for less. I remember walking once through the Square late at night, after a big snowstorm. It was so still, so beautiful. I long for a return to that. But on this day, eyes-closed, lying in the sun, it was OK. It was sound, not noise. It was life and movement and part of a sonic dance.

Whatever the “noise” in your life today, I pray that you find your own equivalent of a dock to lie on. I pray for warmth and light to ease the strain of all that wrangles and clangs in and around you. I pray for the grace to offer sound, rather than noise, to those I meet this day, too.

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Evangelizing the Clown

Making the most of Faire on the Square

Making the most of Faire on the Square

Faire on the Square is always a ball: music and dancing, free tchotchkes, and sno-cones. What’s not to love? But my favorite part of the Faire is the unexpected encounters and surprising conversations that occur.

This year, a stranger asked me to prayer with them,  I did some marriage counseling, and I danced with students from Perkins. Meanwhile, my friend Angelita did an amazing job chatting with people about our church. Angelita goes into every moment of her day just sure that God has something good waiting there. And she takes joy in meeting people and sharing her enthusiasm for our parish community. Everyone is a blessing and potential friend, in her eyes, from the neighbor who has just moved here from Mexico, to the exhausted parent of a toddler, to a man wearing face paint and a yellow wig.

Who knows whether the clown will show up at our yard sale or our contemplative prayer service? But this I know: Underneath his costume there is a child of God who deserves a smile, a prayer, and an invitation to community.

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My Left Foot

Me, not going very far.

Me, not going very far.

These are my feet. I’m standing on Russell Avenue. But I won’t be walking up the sidewalk very far any time soon. No long walks by the river. No hikes to enjoy the fall leaves changing. Three more weeks of an ankle brace, elevating the leg, and some ice packs. Rats.

It could be worse. Really. Everything will heal. But navigating the world more slowly and carefully since my injury has sharpened my awareness of how much I take for granted. Mobility is an amazing blessing, and for most of my life I’ve just tooled around, unaware of how lucky I am. I’ve advocated for those living with disabilities, but I’ve never been the one who needed the elevator or the ramp myself. I’m learning a little now about the small inconveniences that impede many people on their daily round. I just need a quart of milk, and I have to walk all the way to the back corner of the supermarket?!

I’ve revised my fitness goals for the fall. I’m trying pilates. I’m focusing on eating well, rather than walking miles. And as I travel at a slower pace, I’m stopping to talk with people who are also taking the elevator or the ramp. I’m holding doors open for those whose mobility is even more limited than mine. I’m giving thanks that one of my ankles works fine, so I can, indeed, keep walking.

What is changing your perspective these days?

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Depression and Christian Practice: A Sermon following Robin Williams’ death

I rarely publish my sermons, and I rarely preach a sermon as long as this one, but some folks convinced me it might be helpful to put this one out there. The gospel for the day was Matthew 15: 21-28, which reads…. 

Jesus & Canaanite Woman (Augsburg Press)

Jesus & Canaanite Woman (Augsburg Press)

   Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

The news of Robin Williams’ death was very hard. He was a comic genius and a fine actor. By all reports he was also an amazingly generous man. I grew up watching Mork & Mindy. I was Mork for Halloween one year. “Good Morning Vietnam” is number two on my list of favorite movies.

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

The news of his suicide was hard, but it was especially hard for those suffering with depression. To be clear, this is a lot of people. According to the CDC, about 10% of Americans say they are depressed at least occasionally, and about 3.4% are clinically depressed.

It has been said many times this week that comic genius and depression often accompany one another. It is also true that faith and depression accompany one another. From John of the Cross to Thomas Merton to Barbara Crafton, some of the most insightful and eloquent spiritual teaching and writing has come to us from those who were living the dark night of the soul.

Robin Williams grew up Episcopalian and is known for his “Top Ten reasons to be an Episcopalian.” Although as an adult he wasn’t a member of a congregation, to anyone’s knowledge, he did speak in interviews about the role of his faith in his recovery from addiction. And his extensive work raising money for good causes and entertaining troops serving abroad show someone determined to help others, someone with a calling to self-giving, even while carrying a good bit of suffering himself.

So what happened? Did he not have “enough faith”? Is he the negative example to contrast with the positive example of the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel, whose faith was so strong that she got her daughter healed?

Certainly some in the media think that is the case. Robin Williams was called a coward by a Fox News commentator shortly after the news of his death was announced. Some Christian bloggers dismissed him as not having tried hard enough, not having turned to God fully, some even opining about his fate after death.

In light of all that racket, I want to say very firmly and clearly today that I do not believe Robin Williams’ death was a failure of faith. It was not a moral failure of any sort. Depression is not a moral failure or a result of personal or spiritual weakness. God does not judge those who are depressed or expect them to “snap out of it,” or “try harder to be happy,” and neither should we. Wherever and whenever there is mental or emotional anguish, God’s heart is breaking, too.

And if we believe that God’s son was sentenced and killed by a distorted and oppressive regime where a kingdom of love could not be tolerated, then surely God is welcoming home someone whose brilliance and wit was so often directed at the distortions and oppressions of our own age.

The woman in today’s gospel whom Jesus commends for her faith was not depressed. She was well enough to advocate for someone else who was ill – someone ill with “a demon,” which could mean any number of things, including mental illness. The Canaanite woman was persistent in the face of the prejudices and barriers of that day in changing hearts and minds, including Jesus’s. Any Israelite of that time would have referred to Gentiles as dogs. It’s just what people said; it’s how they were taught to see the world. Of course, they thought, she and her daughter don’t deserve help from a Jewish healer. The Canaanites are our ancient enemies. They aren’t good enough. They are, in fact, a threat. They don’t follow the Torah; they don’t worship our God.

But this woman persists. Her love for her daughter and her vision of a different future, her sense that this Jesus might be persuaded to bring them into fullness of life, too, keeps her going. And so there she is, on behalf of her daughter, who isn’t well enough to be there.

Might she be a role model for all of us? The fight for mental health services is on, in our country, at a time when access is very limited and lots of forces conspire to keep those who need therapy, medication, and group support from getting them. Ignorance and fear, some of it fueled by bad theology, continue to perpetuate stigma around depression, anxiety, addiction, and other conditions, which so isolates those who need support.

I’ve never been clinically depressed, but I have suffered from anxiety, so I know something of what it feels like to have well-meaning friends tell you to “just read this book” or assume you’re not taking your day off. My anxiety came on after my twins were born, and even with access to good medical care and with a great husband and other great resources, it was very, very hard. Fortunately, I dealt with this just after a wave of books came out about post-partum depression and anxiety, so there was a growing sense that this was a “thing” that we could discuss and that wasn’t so rare. I am so thankful for those who were advocating for greater understanding, compassion, and support for new mothers – they were the Canaanite women who paved a path to healing for me.

Their work isn’t done, and neither is ours. Here are some next steps:

  1. Continue learning about mental illness, and find out how to support those who are ill, as well as their family members and caretakers. Here is a good place to start. And here is a beautiful resource from within the Christian tradition.
  1. Consider how our own parish might be even more helpful to those suffering from depression and anxiety. I think we do a lot of things well already, and I am so thankful for the ways in which all of you “take what you need and offer what you have” as people struggle with various challenges. But perhaps the Spirit has a word for us about next steps. Let’s listen for that.

Anna Voskamp – one of the best-known Christian bloggers out there, encourages parishes to recognize that lament and darkness and confusion are part of our spiritual heritage — right there in the Bible in lots of places, and God invites us to name that. She writes, “Don’t only turn up the praise songs but turn to Lamentations and Job and be a place of lament and tenderly unveil the God who does just that — who wears the scars of the singe. A God who bares His scars and reaches through the fire to grab us and hold tight to us.”

  1. Work for greater access to mental health resources. Many people in this parish do this every day, or know a lot about what the specific legislation is that’s on the docket at any moment in time due to their work as nurses, social workers, crisis intervention specialists, special education advocates, or teachers. Let the parish know. Bring in the petitions. Call on us to picket or write letters.
  1. Speak out when you hear people say shaming or dismissive things. Here’s a beautiful example: The organization Planting Peace heard that Westboro Baptist Church was going to protest at Robin Williams’ funeral, they decided to counteract that message of hate with a work of love. They are raising money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, a cause Robin Williams supported for years. You can join the campaign here.
  1. Finally, we can keep praying with those suffering with depression and for them. We can keep checking in with them, keep inviting them out for dinner or for a walk. We can persist in letting them know they are beloved. This is holy work — Sometimes, livesaving work.

Finally, today, I want to celebrate some signs of hope:

I celebrate that thousands of people spoke out against the comments by the Fox news reporter who used the word “coward” in regard to Robin Williams’ death.

I celebrate that a friend who wrestled with depression all through seminary has gone on to a thriving, healthy ministry and marriage.

And finally, I celebrate that Jesus, after voicing the assumptions of his society about gentiles being dogs, goes on in the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel to feed 4,000 gentiles. Jesus’s ministry transforms from one directed to a bounded group, of which he is a member, to one of outreach and border-crossing and transgression of givens. Here is the Lord we are called to follow. Let us do so with thanksgiving and hope.

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Good Food. Good Summer Vacation.

A beautiful lunch prepared by the Youth Crew

A beautiful lunch prepared by the Youth Crew

I tried hard to concentrate this morning, but it was hard. The Watertown Community Gardens Youth Crew was cooking in the kitchen next to my office, and the fragrance of garlic, onions, collard greens and oregano was wafting through the air. Laughter was also wafting through the air, as the young cooks enjoyed the work of chopping, frying, and kababing (Is “kababing” a word?).

All of this was the culmination of a beautiful program in Watertown this summer, through which a group of young people, ages 11 to 17, spent two mornings a week for six weeks, learning about and growing good food. They gathered at the Grove St. Community Garden to learn how to plant, what “organic” means and why it matters, how to tend and harvest vegetables and herbs.

Roger Dubuque and Meghan O’Connell, who led the program, made the most of rainy days with the students, too. They would gather them at the Watertown Library to do some research on pesticides, food justice, and other issues.

One of the teens in the program told me, with a big smile, that she loved getting up early and having something productive to do right away. Another said she loved the spirit of the group, the laughter, and that she learned a lot.

One of my favorite prayers in our prayerbook is the “prayer for leisure.” Summer vacation could be spent watching YouTube videos, hanging out on the beach or at the pool, or snacking on Fruit Loops and soda. I give thanks that this group of young people chose a different path.

O God, in the course of this busy life, give us times of refreshment and peace; and grant that we may so use our leisure to rebuild our bodies and renew our minds, that our spirits may be opened to the goodness of your creation. -- BCP



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Holding hands on the way to hear a sacred story

Holding hands on the way to hear a sacred story

Perhaps nothing is more important than knowing we are not alone. Companionship is a fundamental need From the moment we arrive on the planet to the moment we exit, the presence of caring others is essential.

I was blessed to spend this week in the company of 29 children at our Vacation Garden School. We pair up each of the younger children with one of the older children — our “junior counselors.” They travel together throughout the week, and the older child has the ministry of helping the younger one be safe, learn, and have fun. This is hard and holy work, and the junior counselors do it beautifully.

The sight of children holding hands as they walk warms my heart. Overhearing one ask their buddy, “Do you have everything you need?” or “Do you want more watermelon?” is a gift. Because of the good work of the junior counselors, the smaller children — many of whom have never before spent time away from their parents — feel OK from the get-go and are able to revel in the singing, gardening, and storytelling.

Who will you companion today? How might you extend a hand to someone who is feeling bereft or sidelined? Know that even if you feel inadequate to the task, you will be a blessing.

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