Prayers of the People: A 2016 Rendition

2016Last summer, the Internet started asking questions like “Is 2016 the Worst Year In History?” and compiling collections like “Tweets That Perfectly Sum Up 2016 So Far.”

I’m not usually one to catastrophize like that. But, after this past week, I toss up my hands and say yes, 2016 has lost its mind. Then, alongside the raw frustration, maybe because I’m Episcopalian and in seminary and doing a semester-long project on the spiritual discipline of lament, I toss up my hands to the Lord and say something like this (modeled after Prayers of the People, Form I):

With all our heart and with all our mind, let us pray to the Lord, saying “Lord, have mercy.”

For the 336+ Haitian souls deceased as a result of Hurricane Matthew; for the 4+ missing, 211+ injured, and 60,000+ displaced; for the mourning mother, fearful father, hungry child, and tired aid worker, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the woman who was sexually assaulted at the hands of Donald Trump and for the woman or man who hears audio bragging of the assault and recalls all too viscerally their own unwanted encounters, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the faithful LGBT-affirming InterVarsity staff worker losing or quitting his job and for the student feeling confused, alumnus feeling betrayed, and administrator feeling pressured to impossibly appease all parties, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the transgender woman fighting for dignity in her state, school, and restrooms, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the black man who fears that wherever he goes he cannot truly go in peace or safety, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the anxious student who sleeps little, worries lots, and insists that he would rather die of shame than accept any grade lower than an A, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For deliverance from all danger, violence, oppression, and degradation, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

Door of Hope: A Photo Essay

From last week’s lectionary readings:

“Therefore, I will now allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
From there I will give her her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Achor* a door of hope.
There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.”
~ Hosea 2:14-15

*Achor = trouble, struggle. So, yes, you might say God will “make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope.”


St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM)

They say “when God closes a door, He opens another one.” Or maybe this: “When God closes a door, He opens a window.”

But, I’ve started to think of it this way: “When God closes a door, She opens a paint bucket and builds some beauty.” God makes beauty out of boring, color out of chaos, veritable art out of valleys of Achor.


Church of the Incarnation (Dallas, TX)

A little late afternoon light reaching through a darkened door, making possible a stained glass window prayer? Telling us where in the world we are? Door of hope.


Duke University Chapel (Durham, NC)

A wash of morning light moving slowly over a threshold, marking the passage of time? Telling us when in the day we are? Door of hope.


Church of the Holy Family (Chapel Hill, NC)

A church door red as the blood of the lamb that was slain, as though all who dwell there might be marked by mercy and life while sin and death pass by? Telling us who and whose we are? Yes. What a door of hope.


Sacrament at the Soul of Me

I grew up at a Baptist church receiving Communion seemingly whenever the senior pastor felt like offering it, which probably amounted to once a quarter. Ushers would pass heavy silver trays up and down the pews — a tray of wafers followed by a tray of little, thimble-sized plastic cups of grape juice. It seemed like snack time to my seven-year-old sensibilities.

06-2015-laity-lodge-02I don’t know exactly when the sacrament became something more than snack time. But it certainly has.

When I visited and joined an Episcopal church at age 22, I started receiving Communion once a week. It was the focal point of the Sunday service, as opposed to the music or sermon, which I have seen centralized and even quite frankly sensationalized in some settings.

When I interned at and worked at that Episcopal church, I started receiving Communion a few times a week, because the parish offered the sacrament typically every Monday-Friday at morning prayer.

Eventually, I started hungering for it. Just a few months ago, when I was away from home and from my home church one Sunday,  I noticed the hungering for  it and semi-jokingly told a friend traveling with me: “I think I’m having Eucharist withdrawal!”

It’s not a physical hunger. Because, let’s be real; that’s best satiated with some Sunday brunch after church.

It’s a spiritual hunger. The hungry searching of a weary swimmer grasping for a buoy. The “hangry” searching of a tired traveler scanning airport corridors for some trustworthy sustenance. Subway and Starbucks are my airport go-tos. Bread and wine are my life’s go-tos.    

The comparison of Eucharist to fast food chains is a pale comparison indeed. But what I mean is this: it’s a source of constancy. I remember the relief of finding a Subway at the Toronto airport during a layover once, tucked away among all the unfamiliarities of poutine and ketchup-flavored potato chips. I remember the warm comfort of sipping Starbucks at the Charlotte airport during many a layover when I used to travel periodically between Texas and Virginia. Travel where I may, these edible anchors would be there, offering much the same menu each time and at each location.

Having recently moved halfway across the country, I find that Communion is an edible anchor too, offering “much the same menu” upon each reception. Maybe a thin, round wafer or a piece of sweet, soft bread. Maybe juice, usually wine. Always “the gifts of God for the people of God.”

When I receive nowadays, I go back to my seat and might recall fondly other times I have received. I might recall a quiet Jesuit retreat center in North Texas or an Anglican mission church in Belize. I might recall that home parish that first taught me to cherish Communion, glance at my watch, and realize that even across time zones they’re eating and drinking of the same body and blood at about this same time.

I might recall the time last summer when my grandma’s 94th birthday was approaching and I decided to give her Communion for her birthday. As I told my priest/mentor: She really doesn’t need anything else, and I really can’t offer anything else. So, come Sunday, she wheeled her walker into the sanctuary, sat on the edge of a pew, fell asleep twice during the sermon (forgivable for a nonagenerian), and watched as I served the chalice to countless parishioners more ambulatory than herself. Finally, a priest gestured to me to follow him out to the pew where my grandma sat. He leaned over, handed her “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” and stepped back into the aisle. I stepped forward, making eye contact with this white-haired woman of God who has thus far been around all my life but who cannot possibly continue to be around all my life. I held out the “blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” she dipped her wafer in, and promptly dropped it. I looked at my priest, who shrugged, and I fished the wine-soaked wafer out of the chalice and placed it in her waiting hands. Later, we laughed about the awkwardness of that Communion. Much later, I would cry about the gift of that Communion.

When so many things change, move, age, and even pass away, the Lord does not. For me, Communion attests to this.

Because, a thousand miles away from some of my closest family and friends, the continuity of Communion over time and space tells me that the Lord provides for those family and friends. I have done and will keep doing all that I humanly can to care for them, but ultimately the Lord will provide. And, Communion tells me that the Lord provides for me too. Travel where I may, this edible anchor will be there. Thanks be to God.    


The Spiritual Discipline of Instagram Use

“Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.” – Sherry Turkle

This Fall, I’m taking a course on “Intro to Christian Spirituality” with Dr. Lauren Winner, in which we are tasked with completing the following assignment:

  1. Technology Fast: For one week this semester, fast from cell phones and Internet-based communications technologies (e.g., email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, messaging clients including text messaging).
  2. Art-Staring Practice: Over the course of the semester, engage in the practice of art staring for three three-hour sessions, as described in this article.

One of the main points of these exercises, it seems, is to set aside distraction to bolster a sense of sustained presence with and appreciation of the life going on around us.

After technology-fasting or art-staring, we students are to write an essay about the experience. I may also write a blog about the experience.

But for right now? For now, I’m not thinking or writing much about the spiritual discipline of fasting from technology to appreciate the beauty of life so much as the spiritual discipline of using technology to appreciate the beauty of life.

2016_instagram_logoI’m thinking in particular of Instagram.

Throughout its first several years of rising popularity, I resisted Instagram both because I’m habitually a late-adopter when it comes to technology and because I suspected it could become something of an addiction.

Confession: It has become something of an addiction. It can at times become a source of distraction, narcissism, and social comparison. (Forgive me, for I have sinned. No joke.)

But, I have become convinced that, when used with prudence, Instagram can also become something of an inspiration.

I am convinced that Instagram can display far more than the user’s dinners or dogs (although those things are fine in moderation). Rather, these images can be thoughtful photographs, the captions poetry, the hashtags prophecy, and the post as a whole a profound piece of art.

Over the course of this year 2016, I have noticed 2 things: my Instagram use increased and my awareness of beauty in my surroundings increased. As with the chicken and the egg riddle, I’m not sure which came first — the Instagram use or the awareness of beauty. But, for the sake of my emotional, spiritual, and creative health, I would like to maintain both as a spiritual discipline.

When I’m on vacation and taking numerous pictures, I would like to discipline myself to select only one sight to represent and remember the day’s adventures.

When I’m waist-deep in work and taking zero pictures, I would like to discipline myself to still select at least one sight to remind myself that, even in that difficult day, there somehow exists an abundance of adventures if I only pay attention.   

I would like to discipline myself to use technology intentionally as “the architect of our intimacies,” as Turkle put it, which I understand as a guiding lens through which I can see my self and my surroundings. If I ever seem to use Instagram in excess, bear with me. But, as long as I’m posting once every few days as I tend to these days, I hope it can be a useful bit of beauty to bless you and me both.

In a Foreign Land

“How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” – Psalm 137:4

IMG_3085I recently moved to the foreign land of North Carolina. To be sure, I am no Israelite in exile, for I chose to move here of my own free will, accompanied by all the familiar belongings that would fit in my car, a few familiar faces, and countless familiar chain restaurants (God bless Cracker Barrel).

But there is a foreign-ness to be faced nonetheless. New roads to roam, grocery stores and gas stations and pharmacies to track down, and — most interestingly in my opinion — churches to visit. Churches that remind me of home just enough to turn my slightly-homesick heart into a gumbo of gratitude and grief over what was and is and is no longer in my life at this point in time. Churches that make me wonder: “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”

Apparently, we shall check and double-check church websites, take the wrong exit off the highway, arrive nearly ten minutes late, and eventually slip into the back pew.

We shall study the bulletin and juggle it with the hymnal, Book of Common Prayer, and Bible with all the clumsiness of a court jester.

We shall see a bespectacled gentleman who reminds us of our own beloved priest back home and a young family with two boisterous blonde boys who remind us of a young family back home — a family that almost always sat in the pew in front of us, their own boisterous blonde boys squirming and saying “peas be with you” at the appropriate time.

We shall close our eyes and click the heels of our Sunday shoes three times, thinking “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

We shall receive bread into our open hands and wine to our waiting lips and think, first, like a pouting three-year-old that it tastes nothing like we’re used to and, second, that it feels everything like we’re used to — like sitting as we do so many Sundays “at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine, poured out freely, shared by all” (Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion).

We shall be grateful for that bread and wine, that one old hymn we recognized, that one priest who offered a handshake and a helpful “Hi, are you new here?” on the way out.

We shall drink coffee and meet parishioners, who in turn introduce us to more parishioners, whose names we can’t keep straight and who make us long for the many names and lives we know (knew?) so well back home.

Finally, we shall drive home wondering what home even means.

And, if we listen we shall hear Jesus say:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3).

We who are homesick, who wander and wonder, who miss things and mourn things — we shall be home with Christ and in Christ both now and forever.