The decade (or) when God found me

God has known me since I was in my mother’s womb, so at least since 1982 (though there is that whole eternity thing to take into account). I have known God for somewhat less of an interval — only ten short years. My knowledge of my own walk with God began in the year 2000. And because Y2K forgot to blast us back to the Stone Age, I have this handy Internet thing to tell you all about the last decade. What follows is (and I’m well aware of the cliche) a top ten list of my journey with God. I offer these moments in hopes that they serve you as a guide for reflecting on the last decade of your life. What are the moments of consolation; that is, when did God find you? On the flip side, what are the moments of desolation, or when did you lose God? You will notice both appear in this list because both are important in shaping you and me, the people God is creating.

#10: The first baptism (2006) My summer as a chaplain at a children’s hospital is drawing to a close. In fact, I am working my final overnight on-call shift. This night, I have already been present with two families as their children died. It is 2am. I am trying to catch a few minutes sleep. The pager assaults my eardrums. A nurse on the sixth floor needs a chaplain. I grumble during the elevator ride because no one really needs a chaplain at 2am on a non-ICU floor such as the 6th. The nurse brings me to the room of a three-month-old baby. In a mix of Spanish and English, his parents ask me to baptize him in preparation for surgery, which the infant will have in the morning. After some halting discussion, I agree. The godparents have brought a small bottle of water, filled at their church’s baptismal font. The mother holds the infant. I sprinkle water on his head and say: “Yo te bautizo en el Nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amén.” And God finds me.

#9: The funeral (2009) Some situations are just so big or so brutal or hit so close to home that reliance on God is a requirement and not the fallback position (which too often is my default setting). This is one of those situations. I get a call that a parishioner’s daughter has died suddenly in the night. I rush to the house and stand outside the door trying to find the courage to knock. God finds me cowering on the front stoop. I take a deep breath and enter the house. Every day for a week and a half, I spend time with the grieving parents, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that my normal strength is unequal to the task. I officiate at her funeral, my first for someone my own age. And God is there.

#8: The first two months of seminary (2005) I go to chapel every day for two months. I read the prayers in the book. I recite the psalms and the creed. But I’m not praying. Something is missing: faith? passion? conviction? Ironically, I lose God when I first arrive at the place to study God. Then one evening at the end of September, I am leading a prayer at an evening worship service. I say, “Assist us mercifully, O Lord…” I read these five words and everything changes. I realize to whom I am addressing my speech — the Creator of all that is. How could I ever forget? But I did.

#7: I love you (2004) I am sitting with my girlfriend watching a movie. My arm is around her, and she is resting her head on my chest. It’s an ordinary, everyday kind of moment. And without warning or forethought or the classic over-thinking which I could patent, I whisper, “I love you.” She looks up at me, smiles, and says, “I love you.” We hold each other just a bit tighter. And the burning glow in my chest tells me that this is right.

#6: Breakdown in the office (2008) I have been at my first church for three months. A few days before, I had visited my seminary and saw many of my friends, who dispersed to the four winds after graduation. It is Sunday morning, and I have just finished celebrating the early service. I walk back to my office, remove my vestments, close the door, shut off the lights, fall to the floor, and crumble. I sit with my back to the door so no one can come in. And I cry and cry and cry. I can’t stop, and I can’t figure out why I started. I quietly hyperventilate, hoping that the coffee-drinkers in the next room can’t hear me. I can’t stand the thought of smiling and chatting and handshaking. I want to be anywhere but where I am.

#5: Confession (2007) I ask my spiritual director to hear my confession in preparation for my diaconal ordination one week later. I clean out my closet and bring a heaping box of clothes to the church’s opportunity shop. We enter the sanctuary. I kneel at the altar rail. I have written some notes on yellow legal sheets, and they are crinkled from being in my pocket. I begin my confession, and quickly the tears begin to flow. I confess the big things like my presumptuous reliance on myself above everything else. And I confess the little things like cheating on that math quiz in fifth grade (sorry Mrs. Goldberg!) I am utterly exhausted when I finish. I feel empty, but in a good way, like there is more space in me for God to fill.

#4: Laying on of hands (2004) I am a camp counselor. It is the second to last day of camp, and I am helping one of the priests during a healing service. The teenagers coming for healing have wounds beyond their years: broken families, eating disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts, anger, pain, disease. I ask God to use me as a channel. Fill me to overflowing, I pray, so you spill through me into these children. And God does. I am so full that for twenty minutes after the service, I weep the excess Spirit from me. (If this sounds familiar, you may have read about it here.)

#3: Ordination to the priesthood (2008) My family arrives at the church early and discovers it has no air conditioning. It is June and blistering outside. I am glad to be wearing seersucker. A few hours later, I am kneeling before my bishop and his hands are gripping my head firmly. The rest of the priests are touching me lightly. I can feel my father’s hand on my shoulder. I am overwhelmed. At the end of the service, people come to me for the customary blessing from the new priest. I don’t know what to say, but the words come anyway.

#2: The year (2006) For several months, I ignore God’s prompting to examine the state of my relationship with my girlfriend. I refuse to notice that love has already eroded into convenience and is well on its way to indifference. In mid-May, we attend a Red Sox game. They lose. That night, she proposes the end of our relationship, though it takes another month to dissolve. I push away the abyss threatening to engulf me because I need to focus on my chaplaincy at the children’s hospital and there’s enough pain there for several lifetimes. When the chaplaincy ends, I let myself feel the effects of the breakup. At the beginning of my second year of seminary, I fall into despair. I isolate myself, presumptuously assuming that none of my friends has ever felt this way. I escape into the fantasy world of an online video game. I don’t surface again for many months.

#1: The moment with God (2000) I visit my college for the first time in October of my senior year of high school. I step onto the quad and know in the deep place within that I am walking ground being prepared for me. The following Sunday, I am in church. My father is preaching. I realize that I can’t hear him. Then I realize I can’t see him. But I know what he’s saying. The same deep place within is speaking his words directly into my soul. I am with God for an indefinite moment. My senses are overloaded. I am made anew. A few days later, I sit with my mother on the couch. I say, “I have something to tell you.” She waits patiently while I try to form words. Suddenly, I burst into tears and cry for an hour. She holds me. When I finally stop, she looks at me and says, “I know, love, I know.”

For once I didn’t disengage

Detachment. Recently, I’ve been giving in to the feelings of this my most famous and well-documented coping mechanism. Friends will tell you that I barely left my room during my second year of seminary except to go to classes and meals. Some days were better than others. I could stomach watching a football game in the common room or going to a birthday dinner at the Mexican restaurant. But on the worst nights — ones in which I had been invited out and had even made a vague commitment to going — I got dressed in going out clothes, laced up my going out shoes, paced the room, argued with myself, grasped the door handle half a dozen times, manufactured some phantom nausea, and put my pajamas back on. I hated myself for those nights. Back then I was coping with the loss of a long-term relationship; I dealt with the decoupling by detaching myself from everyone else, too. I know — not the healthiest of coping mechanisms. Indeed, I needed a coping mechanism for my coping mechanism. But more on that in a moment.

Before you start calling in a crack squad of psychotherapists, this recent bout with detachment is nowhere near as severe. Like Spinal Tap’s amps, the detachment a few years ago went up to eleven. This time, the severity is at about a two or three. But enough of the shadow of that previous time hovers in my memory, making me all too aware of the dangers of detachment. Back then, a loss of relationship made me pull away. Ironically, a similar set of responses is happening as I form new relationships at my new parish. Of course, with the new relationships come the ending or transforming of other relationships. Suffice to say, the constellation of relationships in my night sky is changing, and something in that change is causing me to fall back on my erstwhile coping mechanism.

Enter this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Paul discusses various practices that some find objectionable and others find completely acceptable. Each group thinks they are the ones who are truly honoring God. Paul tells them that both sides are giving thanks to God by different actions, so neither has a right to pass judgment on the other. In this context, Paul writes a verse of surpassing beauty and profundity: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

As I contemplate my recent relapse into old patterns of detachment, I realize that these words have been with me from my first week at my new parish. Since the beginning of August, I have been a part of three memorial services — liturgies during which people come together to mourn and laugh and grieve and celebrate the life of a loved one who has died, and in so doing, celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the beginning of each service, the priest intoned these same words from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Each time I heard these words in the last month, I got that spine-tingling feeling that happens when God drops an ice cube down your back to remind you that God’s still there.

These words of Paul speak the beautiful and profound truth that we belong to God, or as the Episcopal burial office puts it: “We are the Lord’s possession.” This reminds me that however much I may feel the need to detach, to disentangle myself from life or friends or responsibilty, God never severs the relationship with me. Hearing Paul’s words during those special memorial services kept me from disengaging in the midst of all the changes and chances my life had been through in recent months.

This is why “church” is so important. In the context of the community of faith, the Lord spoke words of renewed invitation to me. I’m sure you’ve heard the popular epithet that describes someone as “spiritual, but not religious.” I think I understand some of the cultural and sociological forces that have contributed to the emergence of this category. One of these forces, sadly, is a misunderstanding on the societal level of what “religion” means. In the modern era, the terms “religion” and “church” took on the connotation of “edifice” — of imposing structure and immutable establishment.

But “church” has very little to do with a building and much to do with a people gathered. While structure and doctrine have their necessity, “religion” does not mean structure and doctrine. When you get right down to it, “religion” means “reconnection.” Re-ligio. Just look at the word and think of all the football players (most recently Tom Brady of my beloved Patriots) who have had surgery for torn ACLs.  An ACL tear is repaired by reconnecting the torn ligaments to the muscle and bones of the knee. Likewise, “religion” is all about reconnecting us to the One who holds us all in possession. And “church” is all about celebrating that reconnection with one another.

The musical Rent offers a stark view of the reality of our society and shows the utter need for these resources of connection and relationship. Near the end of the show, after the characters have dispersed and gone their separate ways, Roger and Mark sing about that special Christmas Eve last year when their group of friends came together to celebrate life and love. They sing: “What was it about that night? Connection in an isolating age. For once the shadows gave way to light. For once I didn’t disengage.” Opening themselves up to that connection with others leads them to joy and pain and life and death and the grittiness of a love that has survived all the assassination attempts by the forces of isolation.

When I begin to let myself detach from those around me, I must remember that God has already repaired the torn ligament and banished the shadows of isolation. I am the Lord’s possession. I am the Lord’s when I die. And I am the Lord’s while I live. I just need to make sure I’m living while I am alive, to make sure that I stay connected to those around me and celebrate the love of the God who knits us all together.