It’s a Local Call

(sermon 1/22/17)

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Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. – Matthew 4:12-23 (NRSV)

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There was a time just after my architectural firm folded, in the midst of the Great Recession, when my only source of income was what I was making as a part-time, night-shift hospital chaplain, which I promise you, wasn’t much. During that time, I scurried to find some kind of work; *any* kind of work. There just weren’t any jobs available at all in what I was professionally trained to do. There weren’t any jobs doing *anything.* I couldn’t get a job behind the counter at Panera, or as a delivery driver, or even working in a telemarketer’s phone bank. I think that the second worst day of my life was when I’d sunk so low, when things had gotten so desperate, that with six years of pastoral experience at that point, I actually applied for a position to conduct animal funerals at a local pet cemetery. I say that was probably the second worst day, because surely the worst day was when that company called to tell me I hadn’t gotten the job because I wasn’t qualified.

The only job I was able to land during that time was passing out samples of food in grocery stores, trying to catch people’s eye and getting them to sample whatever the item of the day was, telling them all its virtues, and that they could get this wonderful product right over there in aisle 3, and that there was even an amazing sale on them right now.

It was hard on my feet and back to stand there for hours on end. But I made the most of it by chatting up the shoppers, trying to coax them to come over and try this incredible crab dip, this delicious baked-in-store apple pie, this to-die-for dark chocolate and sea salt candy bar. It wasn’t always easy. Some people just stayed away and wouldn’t come over to hear me, even with the temptation of free food, but I could usually get most of them, even the most reluctant ones, to eventually come over.

And I’d go off-script. I’d be over-the-top and theatrical with them. I’d ham it up, try to draw them into a little conversation, and joke with them, and get them to laugh, or at least smile, and to give them, no matter what else might have been going on in their day, just a little zen moment of silliness, and warmth, and happiness, all served up with a little pimiento cheese spread on the side.

I have to admit then when I first started doing that, I was mostly doing it for myself. It was just a way to break the boredom, and to keep my mind off how sore my legs were, and how big a failure I must be, a 45-year old man reduced to doing this just to make ends almost meet. But gradually, it became less and less about me, and more and more about them. Thinking that maybe the silliness, and the smile and warmth and acceptance that I shared with them would be the one thing that stuck with them that day. Maybe it would be the one thing that they’d smile about and tell the others about as they sat around the dinner table that evening. In other words, I came to realize that, notwithstanding the really crappy circumstances of the job, what I was being, the way I was doing what I was doing, was actually an important part of my ministry. It was literally something sacred. It was an important part of my call.

Today’s gospel text touches on this idea of being called. John the Baptist, who makes a kind of offstage appearance in this passage, had been called to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God. And we heard about these first disciples, being called to follow Jesus. The idea of a call, or a calling, from God, is an interesting one. I think that a lot of times, when people consider this idea of receiving a call from God, they only think of ministers or other people who make their living by being a part of the institutional church.

But our tradition has something very different to say about this idea. It runs deep in Presbyterian thought, all the way back to the writings of John Calvin, that every one of us has been called, is being called, by God in some way or another. And that somehow, what we do as an occupation is an important part of that call. That whatever we do for a living, God is calling us to engage in it in some way that advances the Kingdom of God in the world. Sure, I know that we could all think of some illegal or immoral ways of making a living where the way to please God is to just *not* do it, but I think you understand what I mean here.

And we need to make another distinction here, too. For a lot of people, God’s call may not be something specific about precisely *what* you do for a living. We can’t fall into the trap of thinking that if we’re caught in some unbearable, low-paying, dead-end job, it’s because God wants us to be poor and miserable, that that’s just our lot in life – or even worse, that maybe God is punishing us for something, and it’s our job to just shut up and accept our fate. No. That isn’t how our occupations our professions, key into God’s call to us. To be blunt, as much good as I might have done while passing out food samples, I still got out of that job as quickly as I could.

I think that maybe the way we can understand God’s specific call to each of us is this: Whatever you do for a living – or, if you’re younger and in school, whatever you’re doing in school; or if you’re older and retired, whatever you’re doing to fill your days – whatever it is, God has called you to do it in ways that are pleasing to God. And I believe the most concrete way to please God in this world is to live in ways of compassion and care for others, in all of the hundreds of interactions we have with people throughout our week.

Just as an example, if you’re a server in a restaurant, treat the people you serve with kindness and compassion, no matter how lousy they are to you. Because you just never know – maybe that person is on a tightly fixed income, and can only afford to treat themselves out to a meal in a restaurant once a month, and this is their night. Or maybe they just got some terrible news about their health. Or maybe they’re wrestling with some inner struggle that not even their closest relatives even know, and they just need a friendly face and a kind word. Be kind. Be compassionate. That’s part of your call. And of course, the flip side of that scenario is true, too, even though it doesn’t have anything specific to do with an occupation – if you’re in a restaurant, be kind and compassionate to your server, too, even if it took them a little longer than you’d like to bring out the bread sticks or top off your iced tea. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe they’re running a little behind because they’re dog-tired, working two or even three jobs, or they’re near the end of a double shift that they’d had to work just in order to pay the rent that’s already a week past due. Be kind. Be compassionate. That’s part of your call.

Well, that’s just one hypothetical example; no doubt you can imagine a parallel scenario based on your own life situation. The point here is that it isn’t just people like me who receives a call from God. Every single one of you have, too. It’s a different call from mine, but it’s no less important. It’s no less sacred. It’s no less a form of ministry. Each one of you is being called, and drawn, by God, to do something, and to *be* something, specific in this world – to help other people, to be kind and compassionate to them, to show them mercy, and justice, and human dignity, and most importantly, to do it all out of love and gratitude for the God who created and loves us all.

The truth is, everyone’s dealing with something. The truth is, God is calling each of us to help them get through it.

Some people in this world are  called by God to do some big thing, something that makes it on the national or world stage. For most of us, that isn’t the case. Most of us are called to do a whole lot of little things, local things, things that maybe no one will ever know about. But they all add up to a great thing. Just as an example, look at what happened yesterday in this country, and around the world. it was something truly amazing. Millions of individuals did just one simple thing: they just showed up. They just showed up, to be counted, to make it clear where they stood and what they believed and why, and to make it clear that they would work to advance those beliefs. Each one of them just did this one simple thing – but together, they did something record-breaking. Something truly momentous. Something heroic. Something historic.

Those first disciples that Jesus called didn’t set the world on fire on day one. Christianity didn’t circle the globe in its first week. Those disciples started out pretty simple, one day at a time, one little thing at a time, sometimes getting it right and sometimes getting it wrong, as they tried to hear and follow Jesus’ call to them. And it’s the same with us. So today, I just ask you to think about your own, personal, local call from God. What does it look like? It’s probably a series of those little things. A smile, a shoulder to lean on, a few dollars shoved in a pocket, a ride to the doctor. And maybe it comes with a surprise gift of fresh-baked corn bread. Or a casserole delivered on the afternoon after the funeral. Or maybe even a sample of cheese dip in aisle 3.

Thanks be to God.

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Hang On

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It’s been an interesting couple of months, to put it mildly. Actually, life has been interesting for longer than that, but the past two months or so have been particularly momentous, seeing the culmination of a number of things long in the making.

Coming Out to My Daughters
About two and a half months ago, I guess, I came out to my two daughters and my wife, from whom I’d already been separated for four years. We were still legally married  because we were too broke to pay for the divorce, and mostly in order to facilitate our younger daughter staying within and graduating from her school district. I’d stressed terribly over how, and when, to come out to them. I’d already been out to a number of friends and colleagues, but coming out to family is a whole different thing. If a friend, even a good friend, doesn’t take the news well, and they cut ties with you, it’s a disappointment. Having that same kind of reaction and rejection from a family member is the great terror that robs gay men of cumulative months of sleep as they envision every possible coming-out scenario in their waking and sleeping hours.

Ultimately, the timing of my coming out was determined by unexpected events unfolding, and not by grand plan. My boyfriend had come for a visit, and we’d planned to drive down into southern Ohio and do some hiking and sightseeing in the beautiful Hocking Hills region. We had just left my place, and had set out on the 45-minute drive, when I received a text from younger daughter, asking to borrow my large suitcase for her imminent departure to Switzerland, where she’d soon be starting her undergraduate studies. Beyond the fact that I actually needed the suitcase for my own upcoming move, I realized that when she arrived at the house to “borrow” it, she’d be curious about the strange car parked in the driveway. But your kid is your kid and you’d do anything for them. I figured I’d just pick up a second-hand suitcase for myself in a thrift store, so I told her that it was OK for her to stop by and pick it up. A little while later, as I’m driving, I get a text:

“Dad, are you seeing someone?”

Wow, I hadn’t expected that – but I figured I could brush it aside easily enough.

“LOL! No, my friend George from Toronto came for a short visit and I decided to show him the Hocking Hills.”

“Yeah, are you seeing him?”

Wow. “Are you seeing him?”, not even stopping along the way at “Are you gay?” Had she had suspicions about me for some time? Had she put things together in her own mind before I could make my own announcement? I didn’t think so, but I also know that we human beings can often delude ourselves in the worst way. How am I supposed to say something, via text, while driving, that in even my best-case scenario would be a sit-down conversation of at least an hour? Try keeping the car on the road while processing that. Hell, try not wanting to deliberately drive off the road into a concrete abutment just to avoid the whole thing.

I realized two things. First, I was too big of a coward to actually tell the truth in that moment, in that way. Second, I had to text back quickly, because a long delay in answering the question would automatically give an answer I wasn’t prepared to give. So with a knot in my stomach and with my hands trembling, I typed as quickly as I could.

“Um, no. But in any case, the suitcase is in the downstairs hallway, make sure that you don’t…..”

I deflected. And then, for the next couple of days, I was sick to my stomach. I’d just lied to my daughter. I’d lied about something that was very important, and lying to her about anything just ran contrary to everything I believe about parent-child relationships. After a very stressful and not at all enjoyable day of hiking, I decided that I was going to have to come clean to my daughters, and quickly – which would also mean that I was going to have to come out to my soon-to-be-ex wife, and to my parents, and to the rest of my immediate family, in rapid succession.

I arranged to have dinner with the girls at a favorite local casual restaurant. We had a great time together. After we’d eaten, I started in with the younger, texting daughter.

“You know, you sent me some texts the other day that really took me by surprise. But I’m curious; I wanted to ask you: How would you feel if I were seeing someone?”

“Omigosh! Are you?”

“Well, just answer the question first. How would you feel?”

Slight pause…

“Well, I don’t know. Would it be a woman, or a man?”

Zing. She has to suspect. I actually feel encouraged by this. Maybe it isn’t going to be as  big a thing as I’d been fearing.

“Well, how would you feel if it were a woman?”

“It wouldn’t bother me. I’d be OK with it.” (Older daughter concurs at this point.)

Deep breath…

“OK… and how would you feel… if it were another man?”

Momentary awkward silence.

Older daughter chimes in: “Well, if that were the case, I just want to say I’d be OK with it. I mean, I’d have to get used to it, but we’re all who we are, and if you’re gay, that doesn’t change anything between us.”

Unfortunately, younger daughter, whose line of questioning had started this chain reaction to begin with, was not anywhere near as conciliatory. She was taking it hard.

“But you’re the one that asked if I were seeing a man!”

“I was kidding!”

No you weren’t, I thought to myself. But this wasn’t the time to argue about that.

“What about the church that you just took the new job at? Do they know? Are you going to have to quit your job?”

“No, the church knows; I told them the very first time we talked.”

“Oh… wait… so they knew before we did?!!”

This was not going well. The remainder of the meal was tense, on at least one front.

Coming Out to My Soon-to-be-Ex-Wife
Two days later, I came out to their mother over lunch. When I got to the big declaration, her response was to smile and say “I knew it! Honestly, I’d have never suspected it, but after you went up to Toronto to see your friend twice so soon, and then you said you wanted to see George Takei at the Pride Parade, I really started to suspect it.” Of course, she had a number of questions, and maybe she’ll have more as time unfolds, and I tried to answer them as best as I could, even while I try to work out the answers to some of them myself.

A major factor in deciding to come out when I did was that younger daughter was leaving the country for school – remember the suitcase? I knew that I’d be coming out once and for all in very short order, and I wanted to do so with her in person, rather than via phone, Skype, or blog post. I’d deferred the start of the new pastoral position so that I’d be able to see her off at the airport when she left. Unfortunately, that was not to be. After our dinner, she got word to me via her mother that she didn’t want to see me, or talk to me, or hear from me, or have any contact from me. This has been the single negative reaction that I’ve received over my coming out (at least the only one actually spoken). It hurt, and continues to hurt, in a way beyond description. Before, I’d been Pops. Now, I didn’t even exist.

But, she’s eighteen. I remember being eighteen, and so black-and-white certain that I knew how the world worked and that I had all the right answers, well past eighteen. Just as I’d hurt other people with my own actions, I’m getting some of it back now, and just as those people had been patient with me until I came around, I can only do the same in the hopes that she will. I think she will, but it’s going to take some time. So I wait.

Coming Out to My Parents
In the midst of all this, I was shuttling back and forth between Columbus and New York, making final arrangements for the new job. During one of those trips shortly after coming out to the girls and their mother, I doglegged through Pennsylvania and did the same with my mother, and my father and his wife. It was grueling. Telling them was difficult – not, as I explained then, because I’m ashamed of who I am, but rather, because I knew that this news had the potential to cause them pain, and that was the last thing I’d ever want to do. As it turned out, those conversations ended up going about as well as I could have ever hoped – and far better than they did in the nightmares that had awakened me in the middle of countless nights. After the initial awkwardness, Dad’s response was “Well it sure isn’t the kind of news I’d ever wanted to hear, or expected to hear. But as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t change anything. You’re my son, and I love you, and I’ll always love you, and nothing can ever change that.” He went on, “The only thing I worry about is that you’ve just had such a tough time of things for so long now, and I want things to be good and go easy for you for a change, and I just worry that this is going to continue to make things difficult for you.”

Telling Mom went differently, but ultimately just as well. After the initial shock, and running through the religious issues she had with the news, she thought very carefully about what I was saying. She ended up asking me some incredibly good questions, very thoughtful questions. I’d given Mom and Dad both copies of Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian, since I knew they’d both have reservations on religious grounds. At one point, Mom said “Well, I guess it’s just the way I’ve always said – hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Realizing that even that was a step in the right direction, I said, “Well, I hope that at some point, you get to the point where you don’t believe there’s any sin in this to hate.” She said, “I guess the first time I really saw this out of the abstract, as a real human issue, is when I saw the movie Philadelphia.”

“Well, if you’d like, I could recommend a few other movies that might help you as you think through all of this. Would you like me to send some to you?”

“Yes, I think I’d like that.”

In my nightmares, I’d envisioned having to dodge things being thrown at me, and being banished from the house. Don’t imagine that coming out to your parents is any less scary when you’re in your fifties than if you did it in your twenties. In reality, I was amazed at how accepting of this new reality they both were. I thought that the ability for me to be amazed by my parents had long passed. I was wrong. I’m sure that there will be bumps along the way, but my parents are amazing.

Coming Out to Everyone Else
With the immediate family now having been told, I was able to make the final, once-and-for-all coming out announcement, via a blog post,  to everyone else who hadn’t already been let into the circle of trust, to borrow a phrase from Meet the Parents. I did this the day after leaving the Columbus congregation – they’re dealing with a lot of other turmoil and transition at the moment; I didn’t want to add this drama onto them as well – and the day before starting in New York, so that I would be starting here completely out to everyone from the get-go. That single blog post had exponentially more hits than anything else I’ve ever posted here. Still, I’ve been encountering people who had missed the announcement, necessitating a series of re-coming outs. That will continue into the future, I suppose. Here again, the only comments I’ve gotten have been positive and very supportive. Of course, I’m not so naive as to think that the news was met with universal acceptance. I’m sure that there are a number of people who are not supportive; they’ve just chosen to say nothing rather than offer their thoughts openly. That’s more civil, I suppose, but I almost wish that I’d know if someone has written me out of their lives over this. Even worse is the scenario where a person says they’re OK with the news, but they really aren’t, and they gradually, quietly just disengage. There are a few people that I think may be doing this at the moment. I hope not.

Saying Goodbye
My last day of pastoring in Columbus was Sunday, August 17th, and I couldn’t have imagined a more wonderful and heartfelt sendoff from the congregation in my dreams. It was a great service, and a deeply emotional final sermon, followed by a touching reception. This congregation had meant so much to me, for so many years. I was so blessed to have been part of them all of that time.

(Not) Saying Goodbye
The very next day, my younger daughter left the country, without my being able to see her, much less talk with her, hug her. I actually considered hiding behind a column or a plant at the terminal, just to be able to at least see her before she left. As hard as it was, though, I respected her wishes that I not be there, no matter how much it hurt. And it hurt a lot.

Saying Hello
The day after daughter left for Switzerland, I left for Auburn, New York, and the day after that, I was already at work in the new position. A parishioner very graciously allowed me to stay in an unoccupied, but fully furnished home of theirs, enabling me to transition into the new surroundings quickly, and allowing me to make the full-scale transition more gradually. I’ve been living with limited stuff, out of suitcases (including the second-hand one I bought at the thrift store to replace the one that daughter took to Switzerland) and banana boxes. I can’t wait to get into my own place. The new congregation is also wonderful. I’ve spent the past month getting to know the people, the congregational culture, the city. I definitely like it here.

Back to Columbus – The Dissolution
My wife and I had finally gotten our dissolution paperwork filed, and of course, the hearing was set for three weeks after the new job started in New York. So last week, I had to drive a 14-hour round trip to appear in front of a judge for what couldn’t have been more than two minutes, answering Yes, Yes, Yes, No, Yes… to a handful of questions that we’d both already answered in the paperwork. Ah well. After being separated for four years, almost to the day, and with not even a wisp of fanfare, our marriage of 26 years (actually 22 together) was over. We joked in the elevator on the way out of the building. A few hours later, we met up again for a celebratory happy hour drink at the restaurant where older daughter worked. Then, back to Auburn the next morning, and back to work.

And Back to Columbus Again – the Real Move
Tomorrow morning, I drive back to Columbus again. This time, I finish up the last of the packing and start giving the house its final cleaning. The movers show up early Monday morning to pack everything up and, sometime a few days later, deliver it to my new permanent home in Auburn. There are a couple of things I need to drop off, a couple of goodbyes to share, and a set of keys to drop off at the landlord’s. And of course, older daughter and now ex-wife and I will go out for a nice dinner. Then early Tuesday morning, I leave the city I’ve called home since August of 1984.

This past week, a parishioner here commented that she was staggered, thinking of all of the upheaval and changes that I’d navigated in just the past couple of months. I thought a lot about that comment. The real truth is that – as my Dad had alluded to – there have been a near-continual string of major disasters and problems, which won’t be detailed here now,  that I’ve had to get through in my life, running back to probably about 2001. As much as I’d never wish any of those truly awful experiences on even my worst enemy, I really think that going through them taught me how to endure all these multiple, very stressful things in recent times. As difficult as so many of these things are, I’ve taught myself to compartmentalize them, and to be able to continue in a reasonably normal, sane, even good-natured way, even with things being very different while inside each of those various other “compartments.” I do also know this, and I know that there’s a risk of sounding superficial or corny, but I know that there’s no way that I could have gotten through all of this anywhere nearly as well, by simply relying on my own strength or smarts. The collective pressures and stresses that all of these things placed upon me could easily have crushed me like a Dixie Cup, and yet, somehow, I’m still here. Yes, I attribute that to God. Some people might think that clergy have a lot more about God figured out than the average person. I doubt that, actually; I think that we’re just taught a larger and better vocabulary to camouflage the gaps in our understanding. I think that the net result of my education has been that I’m less sure about what I think I know about God than when I began – and maybe that’s the whole point. But I do know that somehow, inextricably embedded within the deepest depths and the highest highs of our experience, there is an incredible, mysterious Something that is so real that you can feel the Something on your skin, hear the Something in your head, feel the Something in your heart, as real as anything you’ve ever experienced in your life. Others may call the Something something else; I call the Something God, and if the past two months, and the past decade, has taught me anything, it’s that I really can do all things through the Something that I also call Christ, who strengthens me.

So, I wonder what’s going to happen next month? I can only imagine. All I can do is just hang on, and enjoy the ride.

Morning Devotional

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Will someone wise up and cast Anthony Hopkins to star in a film about the life of Frederick Buechner, before they both die?

This will be a busy day. As I sit here, I already know that I have at least two days’ worth of work that’s supposed to get done today, and I’m trying to prioritize what will make the cut and what won’t; who I’m going to have to apologize to and how to put it and when I’m going to be able to get to whatever it is done, along with fixing any fallout caused by not getting it done in the first place. There are worship processions and recessions to choreograph, a sermon to write, a proposal for a new video projector installation to review, a poster to get designed and printed for an upcoming spaghetti dinner, and there’s always a committee report or two to knock out as well. Ruth is also in the hospital again and needs a visit, and there are a stack of homework papers from the Confirmation kids to read through. I also have to come up with a make-up assignment for the next Confirmation class, because for the fourth or fifth time, Blake or Meghan or whoever won’t be in class because their U14 Traveling Chess Team has a mandatory practice scheduled for Sunday morning, and if they aren’t at the practice they won’t be able to participate in the upcoming tournament, which is where kids qualify for the state championships, and if they miss that, they probably won’t get a chess scholarship to a really good college and they’ll be stuck attending a second-tier school and their life will basically be ruined. So they have to be at the practice, because it’s really important. And five or six or seven years from now, if I happen to still be here, I’ll listen to Dad, or probably Mom, complaining that their child had just left the church behind when they went off to college. They’ll say they’re upset that the church failed them and their family, and that their kids didn’t learn what the parents considered important in life, and I’ll find some way to be empathetic while simultaneously not pointing out that in fact, that was exactly what they did learn, and perfectly well.

So with all of this and more not just on the plate but dripping over its edges, I sit here and write a blog post. It’s entirely possible, if not probable, that some good soul who won’t get their thing done today will see this, and they’ll ask If you’re so busy, how do you have time to write on your blog; or So do you mean to tell me that writing all that stuff is more important than me and my project? From their standpoint, they’re perfectly logical and reasonable questions, and the perfectly logical and reasonable answers don’t make me look good at all. The reality, though, is that some days I need to do this in order to get as much of the rest done as possible. It’s gratifying to know that there are some people out there who enjoy reading what I write. And it astounds me that, at least according to WordPress, at 3:00am their time there’s someone in Trinidad and Tobago who felt compelled to read one of my sermons. But the truth is that as much as I like sharing my thoughts, I realize that most of it is primarily for my own benefit. It’s the way I clear my head and my thoughts, burping out these words onto the screen to make room in my head and my day for other ones – so I can prioritize things as well as possible, and get as much of the most important things done for the most people, and if I don’t do this I’d upset even more people than I will by taking the time to write. In short, this is my morning devotional.

Compressing time began early this morning, as I multi-tasked during my morning bathroom ritual by simultaneously brushing my teeth and reading another entry out of the book Listening to Your Life – a series of brief excerpts, one for each day of the year, of the writing of Presbyterian minister, seminary professor, and author Frederick Buechner. I’ve been a Buechner fan for years, which as far as I can tell is a club made up of essentially everyone who’s ever actually read him. The following is an excerpt from the book – today’s and yesterday’s offerings, actually, since they’re connected. I think his words here are a pretty good explanation of why I think all the daily juggling and doing and failing and apologizing and empathizing and everything else is worth it all anyway – and why the world is a much better place because Frederick Buechner is part of it.

I hear the creaking of a chair being tipped back on its hind legs. “Sir, this is all fairly effective in a literary sort of way, I suppose, but since you have already put most of it in a novel, I’m afraid it’s a little stale.”

My interlocutor is a student who under various names and in various transparent disguises has attended all the religion classes I have ever taught and listened to all my sermons and read every word I’ve ever written, published and unpublished, including diaries and letters. He is on the thin side, dark, brighter than I am and knows it. He is without either guile or mercy. “You know, you were just getting down to the one thing people might be interested in,” he says, “because it is always interesting to hear why a man believes what he believes. But then instead of giving it to them straight, you started paraphrasing from a work of your own fiction. I’ve heard you do the same sort of thing in sermons. Just as you are about to reach what ought to be the real nub of the matter, you lapse off into something that in the words of one of your early reviewers is either poetry or Williams’ Aqua Velva. I would hesitate to use the phrase “artful dodger” if you hadn’t already used it artfully yourself. Why don’t you really tell them this time? Give it to them straight?”

God. Jesus. The ministry, of all things. Why I believe. He cannot possibly want me to give it straight any more than I want myself to give it straight, get it straight once and for all. For my own sake. I tell him this, and he brushes his hand over his mouth to conceal the glimmer of a smile.

“A question then,” he says. “Have you ever had what you yourself consider a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience?”

There are these things I have already mentioned – the monastery visit, the great laughter sermon, the apple tree branches. They all really happened, I tell him, and I don’t see why just because I’ve used them already in a novel I shouldn’t use them again now. And the dream of writing the name on the bar. I really dreamed it. God knows I know what he means about artful dodging, but what can be straighter than telling the actual experiences themselves? What more can he want?

“I just told you,” he says, “what I want.”

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.

***

Driving home from church one morning full of Christ, I thought, giddy in the head almost and if not speaking in tongues at least singing in tongues some kind of witless, wordless psalm, I turned on the radio for the twelve o’clock news and heard how a four year old had died that morning somewhere. The child had kept his parents awake all night with his crying and carrying on, and the parents to punish him filled the tub with scalding water and put him in. These parents filled the scalding water with their child to punish him and, scalding and scalded, he died crying out in tongues as I heard it reported on the radio on my way back from of all places church and prayed to almighty God to kick to pieces such a world or to kick to pieces Himself and His Son and His Holy Ghost world without end standing there by the side of that screaming tub and doing nothing while with his scrawny little buttocks bare, the hopeless little four-year-old whistle, the child was lowered in his mother’s arms. I am acquainted with the reasons that theologians give and that I have given myself for why God does not, in the name of human freedom must not, by the very nature of things as he has himself established that nature cannot and will not, interfere in these sordid matters, but I prayed nonetheless for his interference.

“You were going to explain why you believe,” the interlocutor says, not unkindly.

I believe without the miracles I have prayed for then; that is what I am explaining. I believe because certain uncertain things have happened, dim half-miracles, sermons and silences and what not. Perhaps it is my believing itself that is the miracle I believe by. Perhaps it is the miracle of my own life: that I, who might so easily not have been, am; who might so easily at any moment, even now, give the whole thing up, nonetheless by God’s grace do not give it up and am not given up by it. There is maybe no such thing, old friend and adversary, as a genuine, self-authenticating experience of anything, let alone God. Maybe at the latter day my redeemer shall stand upon the earth and mine eyes shall behold him and not as a stranger, but in the meantime I behold him on the earth as a name which when I write it wakes me up weeping, as a joke too rich to tell on certain silent faces, occasionally even my own face; as a hand which I am able sometimes to believe that only the thin glove of night I wear keeps me from touching.

Listen, Honey…

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I was thinking this morning about an incident that occurred to me while I was in the midst of my Clinical Pastoral Education. I had only recently started making calls on hospital patients, trying to apply what I was learning in the didactic portion of the training and just trying to fumble my way through what was a completely new thing for me without saying or doing the wrong thing. On this particular day, I was making rounds on the unit I’d been assigned to. I entered one room to visit a very elderly female patient, and after her saying that she’d welcome a visit, I sat down in a chair alongside her bed. We started talking, and while she was in the middle of telling me stories from her youth, she ended up pushing her sheet aside, and since her hospital gown was pushed up it left her completely exposed. As a minor point, we’d been told in our training that this kind of thing would likely happen at times, and if it did, to discreetly and without fanfare, just cover the patient back up. So I started to talk with her, asking her some question about what she’d been telling me, and without taking my eyes off of hers, I gently took the sheet with one hand and pulled it back across her nether regions. But as it turned out, a few minutes later, as she was continuing to tell me about her life and her medical condition, her hand managed to push the sheet away from her again. So, following the same game plan, I kept up my end of the conversation, while without comment I recovered her. A few minutes later, while we continued our chat, she pushed the sheet away a third time. I tried once again to pull the sheet back over her while we continued talking, but this time when I tried, her thin, bony arm darted out and she grabbed me by the wrist. Hey eyes locked onto mine and she said, “Listen, honey, I’m 87 years old, and I’ll put my sheet wherever I damned well want to.”

I started laughing, and I said that yes, she’d earned that right, so she could put her sheet wherever she wanted and I wouldn’t interfere with her any more. It was funny, but it was also a very important lesson to me about remembering that no matter how old we are, we keep our own thoughts and wishes, for better or worse, and that these deserve to be respected.

I know that this story came to mind today because I was in a nursing home visiting someone, and I saw some visitors, and some of the staff, talking with the residents in “that voice.” You know the voice I mean; that tone that you use with a toddler, or a dog, or maybe a houseplant. That voice that assumes that the person, or thing, that you’re addressing has little or no real ability to think or feel for themselves, or to have legitimate wishes, likes, or dislikes that should be respected. That demeaning voice that takes away the dignity of the person being spoken to. That’s probably more harsh than I really mean, and  I know that that voice usually comes out of a desire to be compassionate. But I’ve also heard it being used with older people who may be unable to take care of themselves physically, but who are still mentally very alert and who have all the same kinds of feelings and thoughts and likes and dislikes as anyone else. And talking with these people in the equivalent of baby-talk, and not taking the time to appreciate the person for who they are, and giving them the dignity and respect that they’re due and that we’d want in return, unnecessarily robs them of even more of their humanity. Someone once asked me for tips on how to conduct hospital visitations – what to do, what not to do, what to say. I told them that different people would offer different opinions about that checklist of questions, but the most important thing about visiting with people is that first and foremost, you just have to give a damn. You can’t fake it. You have to make it very clear to the person that you really, truly care about them as a person, and that you aren’t putting on artificial attitude or blowing smoke up their rear end with mindless and condescending chatter. Care about who they really are. Look into their face, and try to imagine them as they would have looked at different stages in their lives. Imagine that you’re talking with each and every one of those people simultaneously. Imagine that you’re the one in the bed. And considering all that together, what tone of voice do you think is appropriate and respectful when speaking with them? How would you want someone to talk with you – whether they’re talking with you about deep spiritual, existential things, or whether they just want to know if you want any more of your green beans? I know that if I ever find myself mentally alert but physically dependent and in a nursing home, I would consider it having been condemned to hell to have to hear that kind of dismissive, even if well-intentioned, sing-song way of being addressed, day in and day out, talking to me as if I were a child. I’ll want people to still treat me like a thinking human being, whose spirit and intellect should still be respected. And yes, I suppose I’ll put my sheets wherever I damned well want to. Consider yourselves warned.