I’ve not posted much on Facebook or Twitter since early December. And frankly, I haven’t missed it much.
Yes—to answer the inevitable question—I haven’t seen some updates from family and friends. I don’t know the latest on the lives of those I’m not in regular contact with otherwise—but most of those were food posts or pictures from vacations or their thoughts on the political climate (I’ve definitely not missed these).
While I travelled in Vancouver, I kept running into concerns about the human impact on the environment. Our trip was timed with the President’s announcement that the US would pull out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]One of Emily Carr’s paintings at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Phil LaBelle, 2017.[/featured-image]
I do not think that this was an accident. The Holy Spirit has a funny way of opening our eyes to things we have wanted to avert them from.
I decided on the way to the Albuquerque airport to stop and do my laundry so I wouldn’t have to do it in Vancouver. I left Christ in the Desert Monastery a couple of hours before I had initially planned and stopped in Santa Fe. When I could access the internet, I looked up local laundromats and stopped at the closest one—well rated on Yelp, by the way. (I didn’t know such things were rated.)
I like going to the laundromat, frankly. I like getting all the week’s laundry done in a short time during the summer when I hit the one nearby our cottage on the Cape early in the morning before the crowds descend. This time I went on Memorial Day at about 10am. Still early, but the machines were chugging and tumbling.
During my sermon on Sunday I mentioned I’d put together online and app resources for praying. Here’s the list of things I’ve found (and some I’ve personally used) to make the most of your time and technology.
The Almighty One in the book of the Prophet Isaiah asks: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”These are hard words on a day when we gather together to have ashes placed on our foreheads in an act of our own humility.We gather midweek at church to begin a holy Lent, with maybe some hope of getting a little extra credit, and already God is begging the question, “Why are you here?”
The Lord continues: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”What God says to us, the ones assembled on this holy day, is that we shouldn’t worry about extra credit or appearing to be holier than the ones not here with us.That if we truly want to understand the desires of God, we should fast from those things in us that cast down the lowly and harm the poor.We should look more closely at our own lives and the sin that makes us turn a blind eye to the ones in need.We should question those in power who create systems of injustice that perpetuate the status of the poor and the ones living in poverty.
And in one fell swoop the Word of the Lord shifts Ash Wednesday from being about us to being about others.Humility isn’t really humility if we do things we hope will show others how humble we are.“Beware of practicing your piety before other in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
According to measures put together by the USDA some 767,000 people in Massachusetts faced what is known as “food insecurity” during 2013, including more than 87,000 right here in Worcester County. “Food insecurity refers to a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.Food insecure households are not necessarily food insecure all the time. Food insecurity may reflect a household’s need to make trade-offs between important basic needs, such as housing or medical bills, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods.”Nationwide there are more than 48 million people living in food insecure households, with 15.3 million of those being children.
We have a collection of prayers that we use at meal times in our house that we purchased from Forward Movement.The prayers can be propped up so they can be said by all.One of my favorites is this: “Lord, feed the hungry.And for those of us who have plenty, may we hunger for you.Amen.”I love its brevity and clarity to be sure, but I’m also taken by its clarion call to do something more.I know that I am the Lord’s hands and feet, and that the answer to my prayer—the feeding of the hungry—can happen through me if I truly hunger for God.It can happen if I recognize the plenty I already have.If I choose the right kind of fast.
Four years ago some of us read together Chris Seay’s book A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor.It’s a daily devotion for Lent that reflects on how for many of us our lives are shaped by food, what we’re in the mood for, whether we need to cut back on carbs, or how we turn to food for comfort.Most of the poor in our world do not have this luxury.Chris invites us to make food choices reflecting the poor during the 40 days of Lent.Perhaps eating food similar to the family of a child we sponsor through a relief organization, or making do on the amount families get through SNAP and other programs.He encourages his readers both fast and, one day a week, to feast with joy in order to recognize the abundance of God’s kingdom, and allowing for the rhythm of Lent with Sundays always marked as a feast day as we remember Jesus’ resurrection.
With all this in mind, I’ve personally decided to forgo lunch and any snacks from breakfast until dinner during Lent, and intentionally making those meals generally simpler—oatmeal and fruit in the morning, and soups and bread in the evening.I’m doing this to remember the food insecure among us—the parents who choose not to eat so they can give more of the little food they have to their children—and to live into that prayer that I may hunger for God.This sort of thing is not easy for me—many of you know I love to cook and eat food in general—and I’m not telling you this to make myself look good or somehow holier because I don’t think that at all really.I just want to hunger for God; to take on the fast that God desires.To share bread and shelter and clothes with those who might need it.To give away the money I won’t be spending on lunches to an organization feeding the ones truly in need.To not only pray for change to happen but to become more involved and work toward that change myself, all the while relying on God for sustenance.
And my prayer for you is that whatever you may be feeling called to give up or take on this Lent, that you do it for no other reason than wanting to draw closer to God.That your devotion or fasting or alms-giving would show your desire to hunger after God and to walk more closely with Jesus in the days ahead.When we do these things, Isaiah tells us, “Then the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in the parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”May it be so for each of us these 40 days.May we have all our needs satisfied by the Almighty.Amen.
If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I like having things figured out on my own rather than relying on others to teach me. It’s a control issue, of course. Going it alone means I don’t have to depend on someone else. But I’ve also learned that having a guide really makes things so much better. Advent is a time to release my grip on circumstances in my life and find ways to let God in to guide me.
Taking a cue from REI, I opted outside this Thanksgiving weekend.As you may know, I’m not big into the retail crush in the run-up to Christmas.We’ve only just lit the first of our Advent candles, even though the Christmas decorations have been out in most stores since well before Halloween, and I think Christmas is about more than consumerism.Hiking has become a passion for me, so Melissa and the kids and I headed up to Mt. Watatic near the New Hampshire border for a classic New England hike on Friday, and then yesterday I joined a group from the Appalachian Mountain Club to hike Pack Monadnock in Southern New Hampshire.
I’ve entered middle age. I wake up around 5:30 most days regardless of what time I went to bed. I’m usually refreshed—unless the Red Sox had a late game that I half watched since I often doze off when they run past 9. The kids begin waking up with the sun most days, so I use the time in the morning as intentionally as I can.
I am finding these days that after reading Morning Prayer I want to explore the day to come and map out what has the potential to bring me life on this day. I regularly do the Examen (an Ignation spiritual practice where you reflect on the day asking what fed your soul today and what took life away from you. Want to learn more? Get the book Sleeping with Bread). But it has been only recently that I’ve wondered if I could mold my day to tilt to the life-giving side of the equation.
In my work I know administrative things drain me while time one-on-one with parishioners feeds me. I love taking time to craft words into sentences that have the potential to change someone’s life. Reading a blog that makes me think invites me to try on new ideas. In my personal life I enjoy time with my kids and my wife, and especially having meals together. Reading together at night often revives my soul. Tucking my children into bed always brings me joy as it does them. Laundry is always a drain, although I like it when it’s done (who doesn’t?).
I’m laying it out in its most basic form because many events happen in a day that we cannot plan—an interaction with a coworker or something I read that moves me or an unexpected pastoral situation like an illness or a death in a family. Frankly, I love that about my job too, the enormous variety of things that come up in the work of a priest, otherwise I’d be bored out of my skull.
Or you may be in a different phase of life. Maybe you’re retired or your vocation is to stay at home. Maybe you’re a student. Whatever your situation, there is that which feeds you and that which doesn’t.
It comes down to this: What if I knew I had many things in store for today that brought me life? Wouldn’t that make me more eager to engage the day with gusto? What if I could tackle anything I thought might drain me as early as possible so it didn’t drag me down all day? What if I lived more intentionally?
Here’s my plan:
Take 5 minutes to think about the day ahead, about the tasks that need to be done. It helps me to be more intentional if I write it down.
Determine which of those things would bring you joy or life or energy. Imagine which will drain you. But don’t be so certain! Sometimes I think something will be hard when it’s really great.
Map out the day as best you can. Obviously meetings are usually fixed but other things can maybe be more flexible.
Start with something you love, then do most of the things that might drain you. The weight of dread is horrible to bear an entire day and will color everything else.
Make sure to do at least one thing that feeds you each day. It seems obvious, but there have been times when I’ve reached the end of the day and realized I missed opportunities to take delight in my day. Too many days in a row of slogging through can make you miserable.
As I journey further into my life, I’m recognizing more and more that intentionality is key. It’s easy to drift, to get sucked up into social media or some drama in my life, and then wonder where the day went. But if I take a few minutes and reflect on all the good things that can come from this day and plan to to them, then I give myself the possibility of ending my day with the Examen and with gratitude.
“A good story involves a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” – Donald Miller
I attended Don Miller’s Storyline Conference this spring. I read Don’s life-changing book A Million Miles in a Thousand Yearswhile recuperating from the surgical repair of my tibial plateau fracture, and Storyline follows a natural progression from the book. In short, Don invites participants to intentionally live a better story. But if you’re going to live a good story, then you need to overcome conflict. Most of us eschew conflict like the plague. (The plague still exists by the way. When I lived in Colorado, an open space area near us—home to a prairie dog colony—bore signs warning that the cute little dogs had contracted the Bubonic Plague. You could enter at your own risk. It certainly made you think twice about walking there. I high-tailed it back to my car.) So if conflict lies in the way of us living a better story, surely we shouldn’t plop back down on the couch and give up. But most of us do. We’d rather grab a bag of Doritos and watch reality TV on the Food Network than engage in overcoming conflict. (Okay, I’d rather do that. Insert your own snack food and TV addictions). I suspect we do this for a few of reasons:
We think conflict will go away by itself and when it does we’ll get the story we want. Why we fall for this magical thinking stumps me, but we do. Conflicts standing in the way of a better life—like a deeper relationship with your spouse, tackling a fitness program, getting out of debt, planning the trip you’ve always dreamed about, starting your own business — don’t disappear.
We push off starting till tomorrow. Maybe we’ve heard Annie sing “Tomorrow” too many times, and never realize that if tomorrow is going to be a brand new day, we really have to start over. If we live on auto-pilot, tomorrow will be a repeat of today. And so will tomorrow’s tomorrow. And before you know it, Christmas comes again.
We don’t know where to start. The curse of our society lies in believing that everything happens quickly and easily. But accomplishing goals takes work, a number of small steps put together. Rather than throwing in the towel before we begin, doing one small step today makes tomorrow’s small step a little easier. You have to live intentionally and begin plugging away. What is one thing you can do today to move you in the direction of your goal?
I’m trying to put this in practice myself. I love to write, but have had trouble making the time. I’ve started finding time in the early mornings which means rolling out of bed a bit earlier than normal. I also signed up for a 7 mile road race in August. It won’t run itself. I’ve been hitting the roads and the gym to get my body in shape. It’s not “fun” but I know I’ll love the feeling when I cross that finish line. The story I want to live involves being a writer and a middle-age man who’s in shape. What about you? What are some of the conflicts you’d like to overcome so you can live a better story? How are you living intentionally? I’d love to read your comments._________________________
Photo from Stock.xchng by Julie Elliott-Abshire (je1196)
We had an amazing day here at St. Mark’s. The entire community gathered for a single service to mark our desire to commit a portion of our treasure for next year. In addition, we had a celebration lunch to mark the occassion.
It was a day of joy, of laughter and of thinking on how we can live a better story both individually and corporately.
Here’s the text of my sermon. I hope you join us—whether a member here at St. Mark’s or not—in living a better story.
Jesus paints quite a picture in the parable of the sheep and the goats that we read today. The Son of Man has returned and is sitting on his throne, and the nations come before him. He begins separating them, some on his left and some on his right. He invites those on his right into the kingdom he has prepared since the beginning of time, because they fed him and gave him clothing and something to drink and visited him and welcomed him.
“When?” they ask. “When were you naked or hungry or thirsty or lonely or a stranger or sick or in prison?” And he tells them quite simply, “Whenever you did it to someone who was being overlooked or ignored—the least among you—you did it to me.”
He runs the same list with those on his left, the goats, except they never did these things. They ask the same question, “When was it that you were shivering or thirsty or destitute and we didn’t do anything?” “Whenever you didn’t do it for someone who was being overlooked or ignored—the least among you—you did not do it for me.”
In this image of the Last Day when we come before Christ the King, it comes down simply to what we did or didn’t do.
I read Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years a couple of years ago while I was laid up with a tibial plateau fracture, and it changed my life. Don subtitles the book, “What I learned while editing my life,” and he talks about living a better story. In one of the vignettes in his book, he talks about the frustration of writing fiction, because often the characters don’t do what he, as the writer, wants them to do. As he would walk to his office in the morning after his coffee, he would dream up the plot of his novel. But there was a problem. “Stories,” he explains, “are only partly told by writers. They are also told by the characters themselves. Any writer will tell you characters do what they want.” Those of us with kids certainly know the irritation of not having them do what we might want them to do—especially when we know it’s for their own good—but characters in a book you’re writing? How annoying would that be?
Don writes, “As I worked on the novel, as my character did what he wanted and ruined my story, it reminded me of life in certain ways. I mean as I sat there in my office feeling like God making my worlds, and as my characters fought to have their way, their senseless, selfish way of nonstory, I could identify with them. I fought with my [character] who wanted the boring life of self-indulgence, and yet I was also that character, fighting with God and I could see God sitting at his computer, staring blankly at his screen as I asked him to write in some money and some sex and some comfort.”
As this idea percolates, Miller questions his desire to take over his own story, to not listen to God as the writer of his life. He talks about wresting control, of hijacking the story for his own means. But then he reconsiders. “At first, even though I could feel God writing something different, I’d play the scene the way I wanted. This never worked. It would have always been better to obey the Writer, the one who knows the better story. … So I started obeying a little. I’d feel God wanting me to hold my tongue, and I would. It didn’t feel natural at first; it felt fake, like I was being a character somebody else wanted me to be and not who I was; but if I held my tongue, the scene would play better, and I always felt better when it was done. I started feeling like a better character, and when you are a better character, your story gets better too.”
And then he writes this, “At first the feeling was only about holding my tongue. And when I learned to hold my tongue a bit, the Voice guided me from the defensive to the intentional. God wanted me to do things, to help people, to volunteer or write a letter or talk to my neighbors. Sometimes I’d do the thing God wanted, and the story always went well, of course; and sometimes I’d ignore it and watch television. But by this time I really came to believe the Voice was God, and God was trying to write a better story.”
“Be the master of your domain, the king of your castle,” we’re told by our society, but God wants to write a better story for us. We want more for ourselves—whatever that more is—but God longs for us to have more joy and fullness of life. God wants us to have deeper relationships with those we love. God asks us to hold our tongues, and take a little time to talk to our neighbors. God calls us to feed the hungry and hand out cups of water and visit the ones we know who are sick and in prison.
There have been times in my own life when I wanted create a story of my own choosing. Times when I ignored those who are the least among us. Times when I said something I shouldn’t have said. Moments when I asked God to write in more of what I wanted into my story. Things meant merely to bring entertainment, or personal gain, or to stroke my ego or to make me feel better about myself at the expense of others.
But if I keep doing that, if I keep pursuing that storyline, I may end up at the end saying to Jesus, “What a sec. When were you hungry or sick or destitute or alone? I don’t remember seeing you, Jesus, ’cause if I did, I would’ve stopped. I would’ve done something. I would have gotten you some warm clothes or tried to offer you some comfort. Are you sure it was you, because I’m pretty sure I would have recognized you.”
The vestry, staff and I believe the purpose of St. Mark’s is to be a community that lives fully into Christ’s mission for our world. To be those wanting to live a better story. To be disciples who notice the least among us and who reach out to them and create a place for them to be with us. We desire to teach our young people—and our adults too—about the faith, and we want to have our buildings used to deepen community both among ourselves and our neighbors. We know that there are many hurting people in this world—both in our parish and beyond our walls—and we want to be those who do something about that, who offer support and care and the chance for life-change through Jesus Christ.
And that’s why Melissa and I will be giving 10% of my salary to St. Mark’s. Because we want to be a part of congregation that longs to make a difference in this world. We’ve decided that there is a greater meaning to be found in life, and we want to help create a more just and humane world. And we believe that we can fully participate in God’s dynamic mission at St. Mark’s by committing our financial resources and offering our time and talents for a common goal.
We’ve seen that when people hold out with open hands the finances and treasure that God has entrusted them with, God’s work gets done. I know personally that when I give generously and joyfully, I live fully into the story that God is writing for me. And I want to invite you to join with me in creating that story. I encourage those who have found a church home here to strive toward giving 5-10% of your income to God’s work in this place. If that is out of reach for you, or if you have never pledged before, I’d suggest that you make a commitment of 3% of your income this year—3 pennies on each dollar you make—with the hope of moving toward a larger percentage next year. If we all made these types of commitment, we would have resources both to meet our financial obligations for the work we are already doing here, and we could expand our ministries at St. Mark’s to reach out to the ones often overlooked.
In 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the rector at Saint Luke’s Parish in Darien, CT, together with lay people there, decided to respond in a faithful way by working for those who were poor in their area and to help educate others about poverty and injustice. They began a ministry called Person-to-Person, and began collecting food and clothing for the working poor who lived and worked among them. P2P started in a cleared out closet in the church admin building to hold the donations they received. This past year P2P, going strong over 40 years, helped more than 22,000 people, had 2,900 volunteers, sent 600 low income kids to summer camp, and has taken over the entire administration building on the church grounds, including the apartment Melissa and I and our kids lived in when we served there. It was a small idea that grew into a significant blessing.
What would happen if we at St. Mark’s took action on some small ideas that we shared together? Maybe expanding our connection with Straight Ahead ministries and providing start up capital and business advice for young men like we did for a man named Kon. He’s turned his life around and began a small t-shirt business called “Creating Hope Apparel” in Lowell this year. Or maybe we could offer annual mission trips for our youth and adults. We could strengthen connections we already have with Our Father’s Table or Cradles to Crayons or build on the success of our own Bargain Box. The beauty of being a part of a faith community is that we can see a seed of an idea grow into a life-changing endeavor. And I’d love for this sort of dialogue to be a part of our work together this next year as we prepare to celebrate our parish’s 150th anniversary.
I am so very hopeful for the future of St. Mark’s and I am so proud and humbled to serve as your rector. As we enter into 2012, I know that we can make a significant impact in our world. It begins with a strong commitment to Christ and to the call he has given us to serve him and see his presence in all of our sisters and brothers and especially those who are least among us. As we make our commitments this morning for the work of this parish, may we do so trusting that God will use whatever we can give for the continued growth of Christ’s kingdom. Amen.