A New Year Prayer in the Age of Disorientation

O God who is Love Ever with us, it has been a difficult year. We have seen such ugliness and bitterness and divisiveness. We have experienced such loss, both personally and collectively. We have experienced the loss of loved-ones and of for some the loss of love. Along with these natural, individual losses, we have endured the turmoil of a culture losing its way, seemingly embracing the path of inhumanity. We have seen the dehumanization of the refugee, of the religious faithful not our own, of the reporter, of those of another race. We have experienced an utter rejection of truth, of true words, of true effort, of true compassion in a world grasping for the truth of love. We have watched leaders climb to power embracing the means of victory at all costs, including the cost of respect, dignity, and love for humanity. We have seen these leaders climb to power with love of power their only lasting love, their only governing principal, their only real purpose.  And we have watched as these powerful men climbed to even greater power.

O holy God, at the same time, we’ve seen this year the powerful fall from power. We have seen men’s past harmful choices and sins toward subordinates and colleagues and fellow sojourners come back to take their claim and find some semblance of justice. We have seen courageous souls for too long struggling to make sense of other’s sins against them, for too long struggling through bad memories that could not be forgotten or appeased, we have seen them stand up and with vulnerable resilience and resistence declare “me too” and no more.

The juxtaposition of the movement of courage and the unmoving weight of crassness, of the rain of compassion and the drought of cruelty, it leaves us unsteady, O God. It leaves us feeling unbalanced, reeling from the resulting disorientation.

Yes, God, we are disoriented. We live in the age of disorientation. We cannot see straight. We cannot feel bottom. We cannot find true north. We cannot sense steady ground. We cannot see a lighthouse in our spiritual fogginess. We have been kicked around, knocked down, and keeled over. Our culture’s collective concussion often swings us from nauseousness to headached to dizzied to backpained and weary at every turn. This age of disorientation seems terminal some days, Lord. Our confusion and delusion sometimes seem to be drowning us. Like Peter who once believed in You and Your Way of Justice, Mercy and Humility but who then doubted his purpose and began sinking into the water he once traversed, we are drowning from our own lack of trust in the preeminence and necessity of You, O God defined by Love.

Gracious One, help us. Raise us up. Calm our storms. O God, help us not to give up. Help us not to silent our inner voice that tells us right this is not the way it is meant to be and it is not the way it will always be. Help us to know that You are with us and You will have the victory, the victory where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, where the valleys shall be exalted and the mountains and hills made low, where the crooked path shall be made straight and the rough places made plain, and where the children and the most vulnerable among us shall lead us.

O God of Perfect Grace, may we receive into our hearts the gifts You have given us, gifts by which we persevere and persist, above all Your gift of Grace. May we take care of each other and ourselves and the earth, knowing all things and beings are Your creation and our bodies are temples of Your spirit. May we in this disoriented and disorienting age get the rest we need, eat the food we should eat, and engage in activity good for our well-being and our wholeness and the earth’s. May we take time to stop and sit and smell the blossoms of beauty all around us. May we take the time to stop and sit and see the tender tenacity of each blessing given to us in this earth, on this earth. May we take the time to move and walk and experience the forest from the trees and the trees in the forest. May we marry each moment we have with friends and family and loved-ones.

Yes, God, You who are Community, may we in turn care for and honor our inner need to experience community. Help us to see that the only way to do this is to experience it. May we be inspired by your own faithfulness toward us. May your love-moved life living and breathing and moving in the world move us to live-out our love for each other and for your church. May it move us to a greater commitment to faith and to this community of faith throughout the year. Help us not to be creatures of the habitual search for perfection or the perfect community.

And finally, O Lord of Love, I pray that from this we would seek to apply the law of love, the only essential law in the universe, to our world and to our nation. May we see in friends our soil, our food, our medicine. May we see in the stranger a longing for belonging and fill it. May we see in each other kindness, compassion, care for family and community. May we see in each other we all seek good lives. May we see in each other eyes God’s love mirrored, and help us to magnify and progress that love.

May this be the year not of rage or restlessness or ridicule but of a year of transformation, rootedness, and a cultivation of Your way in the world. May the Lighthouse of Your Love melt break the fog and lead us to the home of Your realm. Amen.

A Christmas in Korea

In August 2000, Holly and I traveled to South Korea and for a year taught conversational English at a university. There are many Christians in South Korea. However, Korea remains Buddhist-Confucian in culture. This is especially so in more rural places like Iksan, the city where we taught. There, the Buddhist-Confucian culture is still mostly unadulterated. Christmas was certainly celebrated in Iksan but more like St. Valentines Day in the U.S, which is to say not so significantly spiritually.

It was for us the first and only Christmas spent in a culture not Christian (and Christmas) centric. However, the Christmas in Korea was one of the most spiritually significant for me . 

On Christmas night 2000, I took a walk down Daehagno. From one of the many shops “Silent Night” lilted. That it was Frank Sinatra singing the beautiful carol only propounded the homesickness it moved.

“All is calm, all is bright…holy infant so tender, so mild. Sleep in heavenly peace.”

The first four months of my year and half in South Korea saw my Buddhist practice grow deep roots. I immersed myself in the Buddhism of Korea. I visited Buddhist temples every chance I got. I studied Buddhism a professor of Religious Studies at the Buddhist-affiliated University where I was teaching English. I meditated as often as I could. 

Yet despite this, or maybe because of it, my connection to the teaching of Jesus was reawakening within me. When you are in unfamiliar territory and cultural differences can overwhelm, you seek what is most familiar and safe.

Partly moving this Christian reawakening was no less than the Sinatra “Silent Night” croon.

The streets of Daehagno were not exactly silent. Virtually all the shops were open and busy. And there was no snow falling. No christening of brighter than usual streetlights. No enlightenment ignited by stars guiding me or shooting across the sky above me. Only a sense that I was remembering something I once knew in my heart and not merely in my head.

“Radiant beams from Thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace. Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth”

Ever since I parted ways with Christianity in the mid-90s, Christmas increasingly seemed unimportant. It seemed more a Capitalist enterprise enjoyable to only the children who did not know the difference. Like a fake Christmas tree, I placed Christmas in the cluttered basement of my mind. Because of my disillusionment with the Evangelicalism I grew up in and grew under, I never took the tree out to adorn and appreciate. I felt cheated by the seeming narrow-mindedness that came with my Evangelical rearing. I felt lied to. And Christmas was simply not pertinent. 

What’s more, my departure from Christianity had complicated my relationship with my family. I was no longer the Evangelical minister-to-be or the great young Christian hope of my church. The isolation from my past both angered and hurt.

Thankfully, the silence of that moment and the music of a Sinatra serenade began releasing something within me.

Despite my best efforts, I could not understand most of the language spoken by the Korean citizens of Iksan passing me by. I could not find full inclusion in the culture I now lived within. Even the Buddhism I encountered sometimes seemed foreign.

Yet I understood what Sinatra was singing. And I silently cried as one sense of isolation, that of straying from the faith of my family, gave way to another. An isolation less created, more inevitable. A sense of isolation that comes with living in a place as different as different cultures can be.

Then came the longing for home in every sense of the word, for the insulation found there, away from my isolation.

For the next few days I pondered the words “Holy Infant.” Influenced by my Buddhist learning and understanding and practice, I had sensed for a while that every infant is holy. What was special about Jesus’ birth aside from the historical importance given to it?

I then realized how radical the story of Jesus’ birth really was. In many ways, it’s the original rags to riches, albeit spiritual riches, story. But unlike the Capitalist take on the story, which normally adds the proverbial storyline of pulling oneself up by bootstraps. There is no moving up to the middle class here. There is no Protestant work-ethic morality tale here. Only grace abounds here.

At the same time, the subversive narrative that a king shall come in the form of a narrativeless baby turns all political expectations on their heads. The plotted climb to power in order to overpower and conquer is the antithesis in the story of Jesus’ incarnation. The Messiah as a political hero and warrior king, which was expected in a Messiah, is what the story subverts.

The thesis is that Jesus, the Everyinfant, is holy. Jesus – born of an anonymous working class family, a family belittled even more by its community because of its perceived out-of-wedlock child – is born a king. Jesus –  born not in a home, not even in an enclosed building, but in an open barn open to the elements – is born the anointed one. There is no working up to this status. There is no campaign or fundraising. There is no climbing up the power food chain.

Sons and daughters of God are simply and humbly born. In the innately humble birth, the birthing process not being pretty or “clean”, in the mere existence of a newborn, we envisage the image of God. And Jesus teaches us in his first breaths on this earth, this very earth.

This was the good news realized as I walked the streets of a Korean city in the beginnings of Winter. The truth of divine humility and newness with us was the Christmas story reborn in me as I heard Sinatra croon of Christ.

Finding room for Jesus in the inn of my mind would be my living koan, my way to salvation, thereafter. It would be a way initially pondered in Korea, the beautiful land of morning calm, its many mountains standing as wind-filled monuments to the search.

Winter Solstice Songs: My Top Ten

In December of 1993, I received in my PO box at Cedarville College in southern Ohio an audio book on tape. It wasn’t the store bought kind. Wasn’t digital of any kind in 1993. It was a homemade, self-recorded tape of my favorite voice – then and now – reading a book that included her name. The book was The Story of Holly and the Ivy by Rumer Godden, which tells the story of a young child named Ivy and a doll that Ivy longs to have as her friend, Holly, the name that still stops me in my tracks when I hear it.

When you are in love, it is interesting how you see in every story of friendship and love your own story. When one of the characters has your love’s name, this is especially true. 

Winter and its holy days for me mean Holly. 

The music she used as the soundtrack for her homemade recording some 24 years ago was the music of George Winston and his December album which includes his rendition of the classic holiday song “The Holly and the Ivy.” I begin my top-twelve winter-themed songs with that rendition from 1982. I Begin the playing of that song with my own reading from the beloved book.

Holly saw Ivy's face pressed against the window as she had seen so many children's faces that day, but, "This one is different," said Holly. 

Ivy's hands in their woollen gloves held to the ledge where it said Blossom, High-Class Toys and Games. Holly looked at Ivy's hands. Soon they will be holding me, thought Holly. Ivy's coat even in the moonlight was as beautiful a green as Holly's dress was a beautiful red, so that they seemed to match, and, "My Christmas girl!" said Holly. 

Ivy had to go to the shed again to get warm, but I cannot tell you how many times she came back to look at Holly. 

"My Christmas doll!" 

"My Christmas girl!" 

"But the window is between," said Abracadabra, the naughty owl. 

The window was in between and the toy-shop door was locked, but even if it had been open Ivy had no money. "Hoo! Hoo!" said Abracadabra, but, remember, not only Holly but Ivy was wishing now. 

"I wish..." 

"I wish..." 

The toys woke up. "A child," they whispered, "a child." And they wished too. 

Wishes are powerful things.

I grew up in a large, working-class family. My father somehow clothed, fed, and sheltered an apartment full of eventually 6 children, all on a bus driver’s pay. In the words of Archie and Edith, “those were the days.” We didn’t eat gourmet, for sure. Mom used WIC checks and for a short time “food stamps,” as they were then called, as if you could eat stamps. We wore hand me downs and a holey wardrobe – holey pants, holey socks, and holey coat. Each room had at least one bunk-bed.

Were we poor? Probably, but not in the ways that matter most. 

Christmas was as wondrous for our family as it was for anyone else’s. But I know my parents worried greatly about affording the gifts we hoped for. My dad would get solemn at the end of the morning, after the winter dawn cheer wore off, hard on himself that he couldn’t give us more. 

We didn’t always get what we thought we wanted, but we never had to think about what we needed – somehow, we didn’t have to worry. We got by on faith and stubbornness. What more can you ask for, really? That is wisdom born of adulthood. 

My mom and dad were always big country music fans. My dad in particular loved Merle Haggard. His song “If We Make it Through December” is a song my dad understood firsthand. It recalls for me the realism and hope so many families like mine continue to know and live, the realism and hope my mom and dad embodied. 

Merle wrote the song and released it in 1973 when I was two. It remains one of Merle’s trademark songs. Here is Merle Haggard classic, “If We Make It Through December.”

In the Fall of 2006, I did a yearlong chaplain residency for my Clinical Pastoral Education at Tampa General Hospital. At the time, I was facing the reality of unfulfilled dreams. My ambition to pursue a doctorate and my plans to eventually teach theology at the college level were not going to be realized. A second round of PhD programs I had applied to all denied me admission and I was done trying.

On the minister front, I was finding my time at Tampa General very meaningful if not easy. CPE residency amounts to an extended basic training for ministers. And in many ways, it’s just as grueling as military basic training, emotionally speaking anyway. It forces you to enter the cave of your self and see what and who you are made of. It suffers no escapists, demanding recompense for all those issues you long ignored. I looked deep, saw what I was made of, took a long hard look, and all those other clich├ęs. And I didn’t like the me behind the mask. By the time December came around, and it was all breaking forth like an ugly sunburst, I was beyond worn out. It was indeed a Long December in 2006. Thankfully, it would end with a nice jolt of honest hope. 

The Counting Crows song “A Long December” – every time I hear it, I am brought back to that long December in Florida, “the smell of hospitals in winter, and the feeling that it's all a lot of oysters, but no pearls.” The song perfectly captures the melancholy of winter in a warm climate. The uneasy ease of 70 degree sunny days in December, it seems to highlight the truth -- joy and happiness should be real but seem as fake as frosted window panes in Florida. But even long Decembers end.

 On Christmas Eve day that same December, I was working a Sunday shift at Tampa General Hospital. I got a call while writing notes in the otherwise empty chaplain’s office. It was Holly, my favorite voice, touched with a joy I heard right away. 

“Are you seated?” She asked. 

She then told me the news that changed us both in the telling. 

“I am pregnant!” 

My long December ended a week early. It ended with the joy of advent, of an expectant new life revealed to us. It would leave us humming a new song into 2007, through January, through winter, into the spring and summer, into the August of a new birth.

There is a beautiful poem of a song by the band The Decemberists ironically titled “January Hymn.” It talks about a Sunday, a keeping winter at bay, and the prayer of something hopeful coming back. Well, something hopeful had come back that late December and lifted me into heaven through January and thereafter. What can be more hopeful than news of a child soon to be born?

This theme of hope amid life’s struggles, it seems to be the winter-theme. In winter, we hope for spring, an early one at that. In life, we hope for more life, for a long life, for new life. In our suffering, we hope, yea, long for better days. Holidays and the holy days of winter follow suit. 

Amid the longest, darkest days that mark winter, babies are still being born or are waiting to. Even in the shortest, coldest days of the year, a new line of the family tree rooted in a home-place becomes possible.

Phil Collins in 1981 wrote a song that nicely captures this stark human experience of winter, of knowing things are hard but that the human reach for springtime and strength and home amid the inescapable reality of winter, that indomitable human reach for winter’s end cannot be held back. 

The song is titled, “The Roof is Leaking.” It could easily have been written by Joseph about Mary with baby Jesus. The chorus with its change to a major key and its grasping onto getting stronger epitomizes in musical form the visions of spring that sustain us through our long winters.

Winter is particularly conducive to the singing of lullabies. Mother and child join forces to get through winter together, the tenderness of mother weaning child a perfect winter image. Yes, it could be said that the Nativity Story and the main characters of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus created the association. However, the image of mother and child and the symbol of sustenance it presents predates the Nativity Story. It is as old as motherhood itself.

The only carol in our list is the carol In the Bleak Midwinter. It was written by the 19th century poet Christina Rossetti and is all about winter. It is as much a winter carol as a Christmas carol. In that sense, it is my favorite carol. Rossetti's lyrics are easily interpreted as a lullaby. Cyndi Lauper’s rendition of the carol certainly interprets the song as one of a mother singing a lullaby to a child. In listening to it, it is easy to imagine Mary singing to Jesus, or any loving mother nurturing and nourishing her child with song. Maybe this is the vision that will come to mind as we listen.

In April 2011, during Easter tide, Holly, Corey, and I traveled to visit family-friends in England. It was a memorable trip. We were courageous to take a 3 year-old Corey. But he did remarkably well all things considered. This is not to say he did not have his moments when he got really bored. And in those moments, he was at four years-old wall to wall energy. In those moments, we were at wits end. Our friends had a couple shelves of movies though not a lot of kids movies However, all we needed was one. This one film was so soft and calming, that we must have played it 10 times in the span of a week. The film is titled The Snowman. Not only is the animation stunning, so is the music.

It’s open and spacious theme song titled “Walking in the Air” really encapsulates the wintry scenes and landscapes it accompanies in the film. And alone, the song perfectly paints the sound of winter.

That it calmed Corey amid the awakening of Spring and around the time of resurrection also tells a story. In the bleak midwinter, the story of the birth of a child comes along to keep us looking forward. There, in Bath, England in the Eastertide of 2011, in the throes of Spring, a song of winter’s quiet and calm came and worked its miracle.

That’s the story “Walking in the Air” tells – winter, resurrection, birth, the miracle of song all along the way. Here is the original version from the film of the ethereally lovely song composed by Howard Blake and performed by Peter Auty.

In just a couple weeks after Christmas, maybe while you are returning the last Christmas gift you did not want, you will notice your favorite retailer preparing for the next retail-friendly holiday. Yes, Valentines Day. Valentines Day, the day dedicated to love and eros, comes at almost the 2/3rds mark of Winter. It’s as if Valentines Day and the energy of love it represents is a way to encourage and urge us onward, a kind of pep talk to help us get through the last-third of the seemingly endless, exhausting journey that is winter. Love conquers even the last stronghold of winter.

Those who know me, know a playlist of mine without a certain musician is not at all likely. That certain musician wrote and recorded a song in 1987 that gets at this idea that the energy of love is often the only thing that gets us through the long road of winter. It keeps us driving onward until we arrive home to the warmth of a summer sun. The song is actually titled Valentine’s Day and it is by Bruce Springsteen. It’s one of the most meaningful love songs I think there are and one of my all-time favorites. And what good is winter without a good love-song.

As some of you know, this is the last Christmas season here for my family and I. In the summer, we will be headed back to Southern Ohio where Holly and I first met some 27 years ago. Poor Holly, Floridian by rearing, cannot get south quick enough. Even southern Ohio is sufficient for her at this point. 

That said, the North Quabbin region and the Pioneer Valley will go with me. One of the reason I will miss this neck of the woods is because winter is really winter here. The hills of white, the stark trees holding onto snow, the blustery winds loosening the snow-trees’ hands to let it go, the quiet fields with nowhere to go – yes, the North Quabbin does winter right. 

A recent favorite song by the Massachusetts band Fountain of Wayne depicts the winters here terrifically. It is aptly titled Valley Winter Song. I play it in honor of my winter memories of this beautiful and blustery spot on the big, wide world.

Christmas 1914, so-called enemies stopped the lunacy. British and German soldiers, on opposite trenches in a war that desolated the land and destroyed all involved, they stepped away from war, put down their weapons, and celebrated life. For that moment, there were no explosions and screams, no gun shots or last gasps for breath. Just stillness tinged with Silent Night and It Came Upon A Midnight Clear serenading the winter. 

I wonder what that silence tasted like. 

During this season, despite its persistent wars, conflicts, and divisions, I still hold out hope for a long-lived truce. I hold out hope knowing that for many the hope for peace is all they have. So my winter solstice wish is the same as my holiday wish. It’s the same wish I offer up year after year in prayer, that a song reaches beyond our sides and hardened hearts and moves us toward unity.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. In honor of the hope for peace and the vision of quiet winter, I play John Lennon’s pivotal holiday song, one that gets to the true reason of the season – peace.

Chaplaincy & Parish Ministry

I am both a parish minister of five years and a hospice chaplain of seven, these days doing both. The juxtaposition of doing these two forms of ministry in tandem has been very interesting and elucidating.

Lay people to a great extent don’t know this, but chaplaincy has always been seen as the illegitimate daughter of clergy, as a lower-form of religious ministry. I’ve always thought this notion silly but I cannot say I’ve never experienced the sentiment. Here is the truth though: As religion in America is experiencing a sea change, chaplaincy, specifically hospice chaplaincy, models for us the scaled-down yet just as professional skill-set needed for religious ministry in the new age. Let me take the next few paragraphs to explain what I mean.

Chaplains are basically ministers in public settings and not the church. Thus, we encounter all the diversity that goes with public settings. While most churches partake in “the most segregated hour in America” and struggle with a lack of diversity, chaplains, because of the nature of the work, experience diversity of various kinds firsthand. This is important as America grows increasingly diverse. This is to say, chaplains have important lessons to teach when it comes to ministry in a diverse setting.

Part of diversity is theological diversity. An essential chaplain creed is “meet people where they are.” We have the honor and advantage of meeting people on a personal level and inviting them to share their journey with us regardless of creed or lack thereof. Not having to worry about preaching a sermon, chaplains have the honor and luxury -- albeit an emotionally costly one -- of sitting down with a person and in no uncertain terms quoting Frasier Crane, “I’m listening.”

Our age is overwhelmed with so much talk. Words bombard us from everywhere. We are inundated with people selling or telling us something we are told we need to know or possess. We are forced to listen to all the voices swirling in the air like dust. We are forced to listen when what we really want is to take a quiet break, be ourselves, and be heard in that safe space. The first job description of the chaplain is we invite others to be who they are and tell their story. This is a gift the world is begging for.

Chaplains do not depend on a building called the church. We do not build churches or bring people in the church building's doors. We bring church - or the synagogue, the mosque, or the temple - to people, to people often at very vulnerable times in their lives.

Related, there is this fact: at such vulnerable times the heart of the matter cannot be avoided. The heart of the matter, what spirituality and faith seeks to sit with and answer to, is that impermanence, change, and death cannot be escaped or sidetracked. What do we do with this inevitable truth? That is the question. Before we are forced to face it head on, for example, in the context of a hospice diagnosis, we try very hard to avoid it, don’t we? Religions, spiritualities, and communities of faith are not immune to this tendency to get side-tracked. Hospice chaplains urge us not to avoid the question we too easily want to rationalize, spiritualize, and sermonize away. It is an urging needing a heeding. I pray the church finds its inner Frasier Crane and learns to use more the words, “we’re listening.”

I end by saying that the work of the parish minister is tremendously difficult. Part writer, part motivational speaker, part CEO, part marketer, part therapist, part shaman, part ceremonialist, the work of the parish minister is really complex, unfairly and unrealizably so. And I am in awe of my parish minister colleagues who do the job much better than I could ever do. I don’t how to make it simpler, but clearly it needs to be simpler. Our time and place demands it change or the church will continue to die and itself need hospice chaplaincy.