I am shifting my new writing over to Substack. This is a bit of an experiment so this blog will remain in place for the time being, but if you want to stay in touch and get notified whenever I write something new be sure to subscribe!
Sit down (or fall down). Anywhere will do. Wherever you are, stop. Breathe. Cry. There is no quick fix or easy path, no way out but through, so sit. Take these words (or don’t). Take nothing but that which holds or calms or joins this pit you find yourself in. Here, in this place, even good news can ring untrue. No matter what you do it won’t undo the moments and movements that led to this. So sit and pray, but not artfully, beautifully. Let your words fall apart with you. Shattered, tear-soaked prayers like those from dirt or cross or grief green garden. Jesus won’t make this better, not if better means go away. He will cry with you. I will cry with you too. He does and I do and the grace of this day might only be shared tears and good food and the silence that follows why. The over-under on your suffering is impossible to know. I cannot say it will all be okay. Tomorrow may only be the second worst day; But that is tomorrow (of course) and this is today. So sit or crumble or pray and take these words (or don’t). Toss them up like glitter or else throw them away.
“O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we pray, deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life…” (Book of Common Prayer, pg. 504)
There are no good words for
our collective destination. Apart
from tragic, untimely, too soon.
The wound at the heart of the world.
Another angel added; a road well walked.
Words won’t do now, not for this.
The living bear all the grief of those who
were and are and will one day die.
Our plans, kingdoms, minds fall flat
before the period at the end of each line.
We don’t hold the pen, our days will end.
Where then is mercy? Whither hope?
In the beginning was the Word
and the Word wept
for the world, for you, for untimely,
and too soon. The Word weeps still
with sea-born tears that wash over
again, again with each new sentence end.
The mercy is presence not relief.
Hope is a face, two hands, scarred feet.
A quiet stand at the doorway and entry in
to a place where to end is only to begin.
Those of us in the business of planning liturgies, ceremonies, and rituals find ourselves in a brand new moment. Never before have we been asked to curate liturgies across time and space through digital technology at the current scale. As an Episcopal priest and a school chaplain, I have been asked by many people in many different settings how we can create meaningful liturgies in the midst of this pandemic.
What follows are the guiding questions I have used to plan and brainstorm liturgies for my communities. I hope they can be a jumping-off point as we all navigate this new world.
First, some definitions and a disclaimer.
Liturgy is often translated as “the work of the people”. This is true in one sense of the word, but in a deeper sense liturgies are rituals that “embody a way of being in the world”. (Farwell, James. The Liturgy Explained. pg. 11)
In the Christian church, liturgies often revolve around sacraments such as baptism and the Eucharist. In a broader sense, our communities carry out liturgies for a wide variety of purposes. Graduation is a liturgy. School orientation is a liturgy. Family traditions around holidays and birthdays are liturgies. For the sake of this article, I am using liturgy to mean any communal event that points to or embodies a way of being in the world. Adapting the common definition of a sacrament, these community liturgies bring about the thing to which they point. For example, nothing magical happens at the graduation ceremony but through the words and actions carried out liturgically, the seniors transition from student to graduate and alumni.
So how do we plan these liturgies at this particular moment in time? First, a disclaimer. Any liturgy performed in the midst of a worldwide pandemic will be – necessarily – different from any other version of the liturgy. What’s more, any liturgy adapted to an online context will have to be different. When we start out on the road to plan an event for our communities we must give up any notion that the event will be the same (or in some cases even vaguely similar) as it has been in years past. The poet David Whyte wrote a line that has stuck with me in this time, “Give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong.” We would love for things to be normal but they are not. The sooner we accept that our liturgies will not be “normal” we can get to the meaningful work of curating these events.
From here I will list questions that will be helpful when planning liturgies. I have added some commentary to each one. My hope is that these can serve as jumping-off points for context-specific conversations in your own community.
What does the liturgy represent or communicate?
Why do you hold this ceremony? What purpose does it serve? What message is communicated? This is not a moment to do things because we always do them. This is a moment to only do those things that are vital in some way to the culture and being of a community.
Figuring out the core message or meaning in a liturgy first will help as you begin to plan the logistics of the event. Is this a life-cycle marker like a graduation or a coming-of-age ceremony? Is this a moment for individual recognition like an awards banquet? Is this a gathering for prayer and spiritual connection? It is fundamental at the outset to know the “why” behind your liturgy.
What is the heart of the ceremony?
What is the main thing? What is the thing people are looking forward to or the thing they will remember? For graduation, this could be the receiving of a diploma and walking across the stage. For an award banquet, it could be the speech by a trusted mentor in recognition of the student. For a family gathering, it could be seeing the faces of those you love.
Before you can plan a liturgy you need to figure out what the vital components are – what can we not do without? What is the core of this gathering? This is a moment to strip away nonessentials. A rambling hours-long event works (though does it really?) in person but will not work online. How can you bring the heart of the ceremony into sharp focus?
Can this liturgy be translated to a remote or distance context? If not, what is a new way to mark this moment?
Once you have isolated the core of the liturgy you have to ask the hard but necessary question. Can we do this online or remotely? An unflinching answer to this question will save everyone a lot of time and stress. Is it possible or advisable to do this ceremony online?
The next step is key! If it is not possible to translate the liturgy to this new context, what is a new way to mark this moment? We will have to create new ways of being community and marking communal moments in this time. We will have to come up with a whole new framework for many of our ceremonies and liturgies. The good news is that we will not be isolated forever. The better news is that the ways that we innovate right now will help us to do the work of community in the future.
I have not given you details or logistics, but my hope is that these questions can help you reframe and reimagine our communal gatherings. My liturgy professor was fond of saying that the space always when we hosting a liturgy or gathering. This is doubly true now. The space always wins and our current space is spread out around the world, across town and across time. While many things have changed, the need for connection and communal marking of time has not changed. My hope is that we can emerge from this moment with a renewed sense of the value, depth, and possibility of our liturgies and our communities.
With the closures, cancellations, and confusion about the future, we are all in a state of grief.
In a previous post, I outlined my theory that the human condition is one of grief with grief defined as the emotional reaction to loss or change.
I developed an image to illustrate the impact of grief when our expectations or hopes are suddenly changed.
When I wrote that piece a few weeks ago, I could not have known the situation we would find ourselves in with the pandemic spread of COVID-19. Nor could I have predicted the pandemic spread of grief.
We are all grieving.
Some of us are grieving canceled plans and dashed hopes. Some are grieving financial losses and insecurity. Some of us are grieving for the sick and those who have died. Some are grieving for the sense of control that exists in times of normalcy.
So what are we to do with this pandemic grief?
My advice is the same advice I give to anyone who finds themselves caught under grief’s riptide: feel it.
Write down what you are feeling. Talk to a trusted family member or friend. Express the emotions as they come to you.
This is a weird moment in the life of the world. Nothing like this has ever happened, at least not in modern times. It is okay to not be okay, but if you don’t express the full constellation of what you are feeling those emotions will express themselves on their own terms in their own time.
Here is something I have learned in my life and ministry: grief waits.
It will wait to be felt.
You will find yourself crying in your car in the grocery store parking lot or lashing out over something mundane or minor. You will feel a weight build on your shoulders over days and weeks.
Grief also connects with or triggers previous grief. The dramatic and sudden loss we have all experienced in the last two weeks has no doubt brought up other times in your life when you felt a sudden and dramatic loss.
At the beginning of the outbreak in America our dog, Jackson died. I found myself in the veterinarian’s office sobbing much like I did after my parents died. It was as though the death of my beloved companion tapped into a well of grief that always exists deep in my soul.
The grief that has come with this pandemic has probably tapped into your own well of grief. You may find yourself feeling what might seem like a disproportionate level of grief in this moment. Once you see that grief compounds and waits, it becomes clear.
This brings me to my second piece of advice: be gentle with yourself.
As I said above, this is an unprecedented moment in modern human history. It is okay to not be okay. It is okay to not understand what you are feeling. It is okay to be grateful and scared – at the same time. It is okay to feel whatever you feel.
The key at this moment to hold everything loosely. To watch your feelings as they arise and float away. No feeling is forever or final but you must feel what you feel.
We are all grieving. The path we were walking has been interrupted. The work now is to accept the new path we find ourselves traveling. To mourn what has been lost and look with clear eyes to the road in front of us.
God is still God.
God is with us here on this new road.
God is more present to us than we are to ourselves.
God is for us – even now in this new moment.
May you feel what your are feeling. May you hold it all loosely. May you be gentle with yourself and those around you.
May we all hold each other’s grief until the way becomes clear.
I have a theory that I have been kicking around for a while.
If you have ever had an in-depth conversation with me there is a good chance that you’ve heard that my favorite topic of conversation is grief and death.
By favorite, of course, I don’t mean that I enjoy grief or death. Instead, I think grief and death are the most important (and prevalent) forces in our daily lives and most people avoid talking about them at all costs.
My theory is quite simple: everyone is grieving all the time.
Every person is in an almost constant state of grief. I would even go as far as to say that grief is the basic human condition.
We often assume that grief is the emotional response to the death of a loved one. This is one place that grief is very common. However, by definition, grief is so much more.
Grief is the emotional reaction to loss or change.
All of the emotions that come up with you lose something or experience change are considered grief.
Traffic made you late for a meeting? Grief.
The restaurant is out of your favorite menu item? Grief.
You fear for the future of our climate? Grief.
Your spouse or friend has different plans? Grief.
You see your kids growing up in an increasingly confusing world? Grief.
We are all grieving all the time.
When I was a hospital chaplain in seminary I drew up a diagram to help me explain grief.
Gwin’s Theory of Grief (illustrated)
The solid line shows the trajectory of a life. The dotted line represents our plans, hopes, and aspirations. The horizontal line is the moment of interruption: the death, diagnosis, firing, divorce, traffic jam, etc.
Grief is not a phase or thing to be gotten through. Grief is a new reality, a new path. No matter how far away you get from the interruption you can still find yourself looking back with the pang of grief. The sharp tinge may decrease over time but it is always there.
Grief is what happens when we find ourselves walking a path we had not planned. Grief is all of the emotion that emerges as we gaze longingly at the path we can never walk; the life we can never live.
Healing comes not when we “get over” what has happened, but when we ground ourselves in the present moment. Though it may not be what we envisioned, this moment is where we actually are. This moment is where God is present to us – not as we wish it were but as it actually is.
Nothing ever goes as planned. It seems like life is constantly serving up evidence that we are not in control. We are constantly losing things and people. Every time we finally feel like we are on solid ground the tectonic plates of our lives shift again.
We are constantly grieving because things are constantly changing.
I talk about grief and death a lot because I have felt a lot of grief in my own life but I am not a special case: Everyone is walking around carrying a burden of grief most of the time. In fact, if we could see the depths of grief and pain many people walk around with we would kneel down and weep.
One of my goals for 2020 is to write more about grief and how this theory of grief can change how you interact with yourself and with those around you. I’ve got some big dreams for taking this message to a world saturated in grief. I would love for y’all to come along and help spread the word.
When we acknowledge what we are feeling and put a name to it we can learn to work with it instead of against it. We can welcome our grief as a natural response to the ever-changing world outside and inside our own heads.
In times of acute stress and anxiety in the community, the Dean of my seminary would say “Be gentle with yourselves”. That message applies to all of us as we navigate a grieving world as grieving people.
Be gentle with yourself.
Your life (or day or hour) has not gone how you planned. You find yourself on a path you did not intend to walk. God is with you on this path – at this moment – right here.
A sermon preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Roanoke, Virginia, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year B).
**Please note: Kanye West had 7.62 million followers when this sermon was written. He now has 27.9 million. Also, this sermon was prepared prior to the roller coaster ride of Kanye’s twitter over the past week**
Last week, Kanye West tweeted something that I want to use as the jumping off point for my sermon this morning.
I never thought I would say those words from a pulpit (and I bet you never thought you would hear them). But it’s true: I, along with 7.62 million other people, follow Kanye West on Twitter.
Kanye tweeted the following: “Be transparent as possible. Stop setting plays. Stop playing chess with life. Make decisions based on love not fear.”
Which naturally brings me to Psalm 23.
Psalm 23 is, perhaps, the most famous of the Psalms – the opening lines of which are known by a wide swath of people from all walks of life, faith, and no faith.
In the movie Titanic, there is an emotional scene toward the end. While the ship is actively sinking – spoiler alert – the Anglican clergyman on board recites the words of this Psalm while the terrified passengers gather around him.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”
It is a prayer of comfort uttered by those in mortal danger and those in old age on their dying beds.
This Psalm contains a summation of the comfort of faith, a description of a life handed over to God and spent in trustful surrender to the Good Shepherd.
We are all familiar with this language and idea. We’ve all seen the kitschy paintings of Jesus holding a lamb surrounded by sheep. We know the Good Shepherd.
The question for this and every sermon, of course, is: so what? What does this have to do with my actual life? What does it mean to follow the Good Shepherd? And why did I start this sermon with a Kanye West tweet?
I think Kanye is onto something. He is pointing to the Truth found in Psalm 23 and all our readings this morning.
He is pointing to the fact that we are not in charge. We are not in control. We try so hard to “set plays” or to “play chess with life”, but it never works. The only viable option is to live from a place of love and not fear.
I want so badly to be able to plan out my life but I have learned over and over again that the world doesn’t work that way.
A year ago I scheduled a week-long retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. I booked my room at the monastery and bought my train ticket. I picked out the deep religious books I would bring and began to prepare myself for a week of deep transformation, which would begin with a quiet train-ride to New York.
I boarded the train in Lynchburg at 6:00 am and settled in for the day’s long trip. About 45 minutes into the ride I decided to go to the dining car to have breakfast. I patted my pocket to confirm that I had my wallet but – felt nothing.
No reason to panic, my wallet was surely in my backpack.
I checked the pockets of my pack – and nothing. No worries, it was in my suitcase. I pulled down my duffle and rifled through my clothing – and it wasn’t there.
What followed was a seven-hour train ride in which I was simmering with anxiety – what happens when the train conductor realizes I don’t have a wallet or id? How am I going to get something to eat – I skipped breakfast thinking I could eat on the train? How I am going to pay the cab driver to get from the train station to the monastery?
These questions rushed through my head as the blood rushed to my now hot and red face.
Long story short I made it to the train station near the monastery. When I called the monastery to explain, the monk who answered the phone told me to get a cab and they would pay for it.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.”
When I walked in the door of the monastery, the monk who I’d talked to on the phone smiled and said, “Welcome. I’m glad you’re here. Would you like to set up a time for spiritual direction while you are here?”
I huffed and said, “No thank you. I’ve got my retreat planned.”
And I did. I was still holding onto control. I was a priest after all – I don’t need a guide. I had the book I was going to read and my objectives for the retreat. That night when I started reading my heady theological text I hit a brick wall. I could not connect with it. I couldn’t read more than one or two pages at a time.
So I walked to the monastery library and began browsing the books.
Suddenly, a voice appeared behind me in the door, it was the same monk from before.
“Can I help you find something?”
My defenses were still up, I was still holding tight to my plans, but a crack began to form and the light began to shine through.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.”
I was transparent and I said, “I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
And that was the truth.
For the next hours, I poured out my heart to this monk I had just met. I surrendered to the fact that my plans didn’t work – that I was helpless – and I found God waiting for me there.
I stopped setting plays or playing chess. I realized, at the end of my rope, that the only viable option is to live from a place of love and not fear.
That is what a life spent following the Good Shepherd looks like: trustful surrender.
Psalm 23 presents the life of faith as nothing less than a life of full surrender to God. The Lord is my shepherd, the Psalmist writes. Our relationship with God is that of a sheep to the shepherd. Without stepping too far into an area in which I have zero expertise – though I did grow up in a house surrounded by farmland — someone else’s farmland, mind you. I can say this about sheep – they did not choose the shepherd, they do not wake up each morning and weigh their options. They simply follow because when they follow they are fed and led to fresh water and kept safe, for the Shepherd cares for the sheep. So it is with Christ.
“I am the good shepherd.”, he says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I know my own and my own know me.”
We are the sheep, Christ is the shepherd, and we are called to follow where he leads which is nothing short of the cross and the death of our very selves and all our ego attachments and our desire to set plays for our lives.
Now, this may be hard to hear. It may sound like I am saying that we have to give up our autonomy or control, which is tough for us self-determined Westerners.
I have bad news – that is exactly what Kanye and I are saying.
The call to follow Christ, the Good Shepherd, is nothing short of a call to give up our control, our plans, and even our very lives to go where he leads.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in Germany in the years before World War II, said, “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ.
As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
“The Lord is my shepherd; * I shall not be in want.”
The life of a disciple, as one following the Good Shepherd, is a life lived in the shadow of death with the illusion of control done away with. It is not a life of ease or comfort. It is like a table “spread before me in the presence of those who trouble me”. The troubles and those who bring them are not gone, but we feast in their presence!
This is a life based on love not fear. This is a life of transparency.
Self-help books and improvement programs all claim the path to “green pastures” and “still waters” but they only present another ladder to climb, another thing to do that never satisfies. They are all rooted in the fear and scarcity.
And all the while, the still, small voice of God “calls us each by name” and fills our cups to overflowing.
The trustful surrender to the Good Shepherd is this instinctual handing over of control every day and in every moment.
For those of us who love to take control of our lives with a white-knuckle grip and be our own shepherd, I ask you Dr. Phil’s famous question, “How is that working out for you?”
The First Letter to John tells us that we should “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts…”
Our hearts condemn us when we think we are in control. The narrative that you aren’t good enough and you can’t do it and you will fail slips into our minds when we take hold of the reigns. Our hearts condemn us when we start hiding and scheming and planning, like I did in during and after my disastrous retreat.
In theological terms, our hearts condemn us when we are bound up in the Law.
Only when we surrender to the grace of God can hearts be reassured. Only when we follow the Good Shepherd can we be lead to the still waters and green pastures of God’s Presence.
There is freedom in admitting powerlessness. There is life in dying to yourself.
“Be transparent as possible. Stop setting plays. Stop playing chess with life. Make decisions based on love not fear.”
The Lord is my shepherd; * I shall not be in want.”
The breakneck speed of life these days makes even normal tasks seem more difficult. Add to it the pressures of the holiday season and you have a recipe for overwhelm and burnout.
For many people, there is a layer on top of all of these pressures: grief.
No one is immune from grief. In fact, I would argue (and will be doing some graduate work on the thesis) that grief is the fundamental human condition.
Never is this reality more evident than the holidays: memories of family traditions come flooding back with the opening notes of a Christmas carol or the images of that favorite Christmas movie. Preparations for the holidays dredge up long forgotten losses.
For me, the flood of emotions came back as I sat in a church pew and listened to the Lessons and Carols program of a local boarding school. As the middle school orchestra played a selection from The Nutcracker, I was transported immediately to my childhood trips to The Kennedy Center to see the production.
Every year my parents would dress my brother and me in our finest suits and drive us from Charlottesville to Washington D.C. to see the ballet performance of the Christmas classic. In the time between visits to The Kennedy Center, I would watch the VHS copy of The Nutcracker starring Macaulay Culkin.
When the middle school orchestra pulled their bows across their mistuned strings and played the first notes of the Overture I was washed over with the sweet, sharp pangs of grief.
I remembered Christmas mornings and birthday parties. I remembered days home sick in bed and days spent playing in the snow. I remembered where I was when I heard that my mom had died. I remembered what the fake grass at her graveside felt like as it crunched under my eight-year-old feet. I remembered what it felt like when I was told my father had died. I remembered standing alone and realizing that I didn’t know what to do without him.
All of this came back in the time it took a preteen orchestra to struggle through Tchaikovsky.
The holidays can be a minefield of grief: around every corner, there are memories and emotions and deep joys and deep pains waiting to reemerge.
This is only a problem if grief is a problem.
You see, grief is not something to get through. It is not an easy process with a clear start and finish date. Grief is a state that emerges after any loss, no matter how big or small.
The reality of grief is that it is always with you, just under the surface. At the holidays, the facade that our daily routine offers fades away and we see our situation for what it really is: we are always grieving and this is not a problem.
When the wave of grief crashed over me in that church pew I sat there and felt it. I listened to the music and was transported through the sadness and pain and joy. When the songs were over and the evening done, I still grieved the loss of my parents – as I will every holiday season.
I stood up from the pew and walked out of the church to go about my life, surrounded and supported by the people I love but see no more.
The holidays are hard for everyone because everyone is grieving: people they’ve lost, childhoods that are gone, opportunities and hopes that will never come true. We grieve the ideal Christmas dinner that we can’t cook or the perfect family photo that we can’t take. We grieve the person we wanted to be but can no longer become. We grieve our plans for the day that fall apart with the unexpected phone call from home.
There is a good chance you are grieving this holiday because grief is a fact of life and the holidays bring this fact to the surface.
My prayer is that you find time to sit with it, to listen to the music and let it wash over you. When the song is over, get up and keep walking.