I invite you, my friends, to join me as dialogue partners in considering this question: What do we need to live a good life? And what I mean by “goodness” here isn’t being morally righteous, but thriving, flourishing, living out the fullness of one’s humanity
I think of these as some of the ingredients:
Enough to eat. A place to live.
Opportunities to love and be loved in the fullest sense, which is so much more than the passion of romantic love or fondness for family and friends; “Justice is what love looks like in action,” as Cornel West once said, and there’s still more to the word than that.
A degree of autonomy, but also a place in community.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs might come to mind for any of you who have taken those classes, but I think I mean both more and less than the spectrum he laid out, and I’d prefer to converse in plain English, not the jargon of psychology.
What I’m putting on my list are ingredients, but I won’t try to write out a complete recipe. Perhaps in some cases a little more of this can make up for a little less than that; I don’t know.
I’ve been thinking about these things as I struggle to balance my own feelings of gratitude and loss in this time of pandemic. This is not the life I’d hoped to be living in retirement, either personally or vocationally. I can’t be with most of my family or my friends as I’d like. The pilgrimage to Assisi I’d so been looking forward to was canceled, with no other opportunities for travel anywhere in sight. I’d intended to continue to live my ordination even in retirement from parish ministry, but the possibilities for that have vanished. In a kind of symbolic moment, I had a supply gig I was eagerly looking forward to the first Sunday that all the churches shut down, and there that went.
Anyway, those losses really hurt. And yet there have been other opportunities: to go deeper in my photography, to work on writing poetry, to read, to ride my bike 5-6 miles every day, to cook, to spend a special kind of time with my family and especially my two little granddaughters.
This is definitely not the life I’d intended to be living right now. And yet.So what about you: are you thriving these days, and if not, what is it that you still need?
While I was sitting and thinking of nothing in particular this morning, I thought to share this photo from my files. It’s a work titled “When I Was Hungry and Thirsty,” by Timothy Schmalz, at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. I was fascinated by the urge some passersby felt to leave a few coins on his plate. Seriously, what were they thinking?It brought to mind a dream I had a week or so ago, in which I was listening to a sermon in which some colleagues and I were being exhorted to remember and live into our first ordination. The background you need, if you don’t know it already, is that we priests in the Episcopal Church are ordained twice, the first time as deacons, the second time as priests. That bothers some deacons, who see it as disrespecting their call, and I understand that, although I’ll say for myself that I’ve always understood my diaconal ordination as formative for understanding my own call.
But again I wonder, seriously, what would it mean for me now in retirement (and under quarantine) to live into that first ordination?
It seems to me that many if not most of us are grieving these days.
We mourn our dead, of course. Some of us have lost friends or family members to the virus. Others grieve the deaths of loved ones who can’t be honored at a proper memorial service because of restrictions on large gatherings. Without knowing their names, we mourn the 150,000 Americans who have died of covid-related causes.
But there’s more to it than that. We’ve all lost so much more: vacations we were looking forward to, family gatherings and celebrations that can’t happen, jobs. The virus has put limitations on the way we work and serve our communities; it’s restricted the freedom to go where we want to go and do what we want to do in ways most of us have never experienced before. We’re irritable and can’t concentrate and we don’t know why, not immediately recognizing what’s happening as grief.
I’ve been working my way through the book “Winter of the Heart” by Paul D’Arcy and finding it tremendously helpful. It’s oriented toward grieving the loss of people who were important to us, but most of the points it makes about grief are easily adaptable to these other losses.
The work of grief, D’Arcy says, is to gratefully let go of what is no more and reorient ourselves to the possibilities that lie hidden in what is, a transformation that requires letting love open our hearts to create “an open space through which the river of sorrow can flow.” Paraphrasing the late poet and priest John O’Donohue, she says that there’s an invitation to be found in every moment of our lives, “even in the deepest heartache.”
I think of these river reflections as occupying a kind of liminal space somewhere between reality and imagination. Though not exact replicas, the shifting images reflected in the river often reveal a special beauty of their own and help us to appreciate the original all the more. So then what does it mean to say that we are created in the image and likeness of God, a different kind of reflection?
Quick bike ride before Zoom church. In addition to the doe, I pass walkers, bikers, a huge turtle basking in the sun on a branch fallen into the canal, a distant woodpecker and a rooster who crows as I ride by. Life is beautiful, life is fragile, life is tragic, life endures, life inspires. All life is one. Black lives matter. Lives lived to the end in nursing homes matter. The lives of health care workers and first responders matter. Lives lived on the streets matter. The lives of prophets calling for justice matter. Creation care matters. Lives at the border matter. All lives matter, of course, but some lives have been devalued when we suppose that God loves us better. All life is one. All life is created by God. This is where God is for me this morning.
Spoiler alert: The picture is not what I’m going to talk about here.
I took this photo over the weekend, but I didn’t post it then because it felt tone deaf to be to be lifting up Bucks County’s peaceful countryside while people in places not so far away were experiencing such turmoil. I’ve been doing the social isolation thing pretty seriously, so I didn’t rush off to join the protests, but I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading this past week. Curiously, I find that I have nothing much to say about the demonstrations and the reactions they’ve provoked.
I’ll tell you a story: Long ago, when I was young, earnest and impressionable, I had a friend who seemed to know the right way to think about everything. I was drawn to that person because I wanted to think right, too, and I listened very carefully. Later, I was a little embarrassed by my pose of acolyte to the wise one. Much later, I saw a bit of arrogance in their posture of knowing the right way to think about everything, but I didn’t really take the lesson to heart.
Very much later, I was ordained and set about living into all the joys and responsibilities of ordained life, one of which is proclaiming the Gospel in a specific place and time. Which very frankly can feel a little like knowing the right way to think about everything. It’s what’s expected of you, you’re supposed to pray first for wisdom to know what to preach, but to be very honest it can be habit-forming. It can start to feel pretty good to be the one who knows the right way to think about everything. I can be hard to stop.
In my experience (but what would I know) when you go to an Episcopal Church, stand up front, and hold up a Bible, people expect you to open it and read something to them. Since that didn’t happen in the news from Washington yesterday, I’m going to fill in by offering a portion of Psalm 72:
Oh God, give your anointed one your judgment– and your justice. Teach your chosen one to govern your people rightly and bring justice to the oppressed. The mountains will bring the people peace and the hills justice! Your anointed will defend the oppressed among the people, save the children of the poor, and crush the oppressor. …
Your anointed will rescue the poor when they cry out, and the oppressed when there is no one to help them. Your chosen one will take pity on the lowly and the poor, and will save their lives. Your chosen one will rescue them all from violence and oppression, and will treat their blood as precious.
A hundred thousand. Lord, have mercy. Many of those taken from us were elderly, but so many others were not. Ages 44, 52, 36, 25, 48, 43 … they still had so much to give, and the world is so much poorer without them.
Many of us are grieving … for this loss of life, for the loss of the lives we ourselves wanted to be living now … and it’s hard to grieve alone.
We need to feel free to go ahead and do the work of grieving, to curse and to cry. I think it’s important to face the loss, and not just turn away and wait for it to be over. We need to engage our grief.
But one thing I think we need to be careful about is targeting the wrong enemy. I see that in those who want to shame people who are or are not wearing masks, those who blame individual politicians for the closings, those who want to reopen churches now as an act of religious freedom.
I think true religion calls on us to dig deeper, to nourish compassionate hearts.
I read this this morning and found it helpful. It’s a reflection on Mark 7:24-30, the story of the Syrophenician woman who told Jesus that even the dogs deserve their crumbs:
Jesus of Nazareth, When you met the Woman of Syrophenicia, you called her a little dog but that didn’t stop her. Little dogs need little crumbs, she said, and you listened, repented, and praised her for her words. We praise her words too, and ask that we can speak like her, and listen like you. Because this is the gift of resilience and repentance. This just might save us. Amen.
from “Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community,” by Padraig O Tuama