The Real Life

_54415635_smartphone_paThe digital world is fast becoming our new reality and, like many, I am a proponent of the value it has in connecting us to a broader audience.

I appreciate that Facebook has helped me reach across oceans and the span of decades to be in touch with childhood friends from South Africa who are now spread across the globe. And I celebrate the advantages that social media, optimized websites and online advertising offer our churches.

But… doubt has been gnawing its way in over time. It’s the rabbit hole of information, news and opinion available every second of every day. It’s the visibility of all our “friends” without the necessity of one-on-one relationship building. It’s how, in a quiet moment, I’m inclined to reach for an app instead of using the opportunity for prayerful contemplation as I would have before. I found I yearned even more for times around the dinner table with friends and family, for my gardening and walks with the dog.

Somewhere in this realization came an epiphany. As communities where people gather face-to-face and build relationships both with God and one another, churches are even more valuable in world that is increasingly virtual.

While the social trends of online communication will no doubt increase so too will our sense of valuing the moments when we are really living, face-to-face. NPR recently featured coverage about “technoference” a term newly coined that describes the way that technology can disrupt personal interaction. And even more poignant, groundbreaking blogger, Andrew Sullivan has announced he plans to stop blogging. In a recent post, he said: “I am saturated in digital life and I want to return to the actual world again.”

It is into this space that I believe our churches have the unique opportunity to offer meaningful and relevant communal experiences that help us make real connections.

Children and a Pet’s Passing

My first job was in a pet store. It was a small bustling shop near my home in Walmer, a suburb of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. I loved working there and would ride my bicycle to work after school or on Saturdays to stock shelves and sell customers a new pet along with all the supplies needed for a happy life.

Child with tabby catIn this setting I learned how difficult it is for many people to deal with the death of a pet, particularly when they have young children. Often on weekend morning, a parent would come bustling into the store as soon as the doors opened and insist that I catch – out of a tank of at least 200 goldfish or a cage of 25 parakeets – the “one with the spot behind the right eye because it looks just like Freddy.” What invariably followed was a conversation about how Freddy had unexpectedly died the night before and the other parent had whisked the children out of the house while this one made a frantic dash to the pet store to find a replacement pet.

The desire to want to shield ourselves or a child from the reality of death is understandable and perhaps even necessary considering other losses we may recently have faced. But for anyone who simply wishes to avoid a difficult, emotional or confusing topic for which they feel they have no answers, I raise the same question I did to those parents years ago. Who will be there when you die? Isn’t this an ideal opportunity to begin the conversation about the finitude of life when you can be there to offer the assurance of the love we have experience and known?

We are so clearly and plainly loved by our pets that when they die, we are gifted with the opportunity, in their passing, to see the fullness of life. Kahlil Gibran wrote…

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and in truth you shall see that you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

This truth that we feel great sadness as a result of great love means that death offers us the opportunity not only to practice healthy habits of mourning but to celebrate life in all its joy and fullness, despite our pain in that moment.

Child running on beach with dogI was born into a home with 21 cats, 3 dogs and 2 horses. None had been purchased, all were rescued. My mother’s ministry with animals is remarkable but more remarkable, I now realize, is that she never hid their deaths from me when I was a young child. I remember her explaining, as an end of life decision for an elderly or very sick pet approached, that we welcomed the responsibility of making the difficult decision because of the gift of love and trust we received from our pet and because we had the ability to help them at times when they couldn’t help themselves. We would travel to the clinic together and stand with the vet caressing our pet as they faded after the injection. Invariably, we’d leave sobbing but as much with tears of gratitude as sadness, sharing memories and relief that our loved ones was at rest. I remember petting elderly cats and dogs in special made up beds as we faced the reality that this would likely be their last night with us. And I remember digging holes in carefully selected spots in the garden and dressing shoe boxes with petals to keep a dear pet company in our garden.

I don’t suggest that all families need to see it through to the end this literally but I believe wholeheartedly that these moments are opportunities for conversation and prayer that can remind us of God’s presence with us and the joys of life even in the seemingly saddest moments.

Justice & Spirituality

Human-RightsJustice came up at a church visioning meeting recently. A small group gathered in my study with the purpose of discerning how our community might reach out more to our neighbors both to serve and know us as a community and what we offer. My mentioning “social justice” led to some interesting conversation about sensibilities and sensitivities around the church’s voice in the life of church members and in the world at large.

A few weeks later I was talking with a group of 9th graders who will be confirming their baptismal vows later this spring. Our workshop topic included Lent and what the season invites us to focus on. The classic Christian practices of Lent are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The young Confirmands asked: “what’s almsgiving?!”

Talking to them about charitable acts of giving and spiritual practices led me back to the earlier conversation about working for justice. It led me to wonder more about our responsibilities as Christians of conscience and reminded me again of the schism some see between spirituality and justice.

Then preparing for prayer circle one week, I happened to read this:

Spirituality is not meant to be self-absorption, a cocoon-like relationship of “God and me.” In the long run, if it is to have meaning, if it is to grow and not wither, it must be a wellspring of compassionate living. It must reach out to others as God has reached out to us. True spirituality breaks down the walls of our souls and lets in not just heaven, but the whole world.*

This passage articulated so well a sense of both-and. That as disciples, we need to deepen our spirituality continually so that we might increasingly see the world as God does and reach out with Christly-compassion.

When I look at the example of Christ’s ministry, I see someone who had a deep and abiding connection to God through prayer and mindful-living. And I also see someone who acted bravely in the face of injustice and who advocated for the marginalized and oppressed.

I pray my – our – journey through Lent would lead us into the heart of God and then out into the world. Amen.
* Kirvan, John, ed. Let Nothing Disturb You: Teresa of Avila. Ave Maria Press: Indiana, 2008.

Advent Devotional

This autumn I lifted Elephant Ear bulbs for the first time. Gardening, like all earthy and outdoor activities, has always been a spiritual practice for me – something that connects me to the greater and grounded source: God.

I am amazed at how mundane bulbs look. They’re quite out of proportion, in size and appearance, to the plants and flowers they yield – a marvel really! Advent is, I believe, similarly deceptive. Our focus is on the highlight – Christmas. Indeed, almost everything about our anticipation of the holiday focuses only on the holiday itself and on its celebratory and joyous nature. This is to our detriment, I think. I believe there’s great value in seeing Advent as the nondescript and unimpressive bulb, covered in clumps of wet dirt. I think there’s value in marking the unadorned times, the times when we can hold and contemplate life, clumps of dirt and all.

I now have a deeper appreciation for Advent as the beginning of our liturgical year. I believe it says something about our faith tradition – its recognition that the high holy days, our most joyous and transcendent celebrations, cannot be fully entered into without an abiding appreciation for the earthiness of our lived experience in times when things are not all prettied-up.

God, you are the very ground of my being and yet also transcend everything I know and am. Help me to appreciate the relationship between these two in the upcoming seasons, in my life, my faith, and our world. Amen.