Why is it that everything that is good... becomes bad, after a while? Why is it that, sometime, a product, idea or movement that begins as a novelty, offering an innovative and exciting new way to do things, becomes the enemy, after a time? Why is the line between what’s good for us and what’s bad for us so... slippery? In the world of nutrition, think of the roller coaster, for example, that dietary fat has been on for a while: good fats, bad fats. Yes, butter. No, butter. Coconut oil in coffee. Avocado toast. Deep fried Twinkies. Which is it? Is good fat going to save us? Are deep fried county fair treats going to kill us? (Well, actually, on that last one, yes.) What I am on about, today, is the shifting cultural tide on the use of smart phones- the mini-computers that we carry around with us that give us access to everyone we know and all of the information that we need, whenever we want it, at the tapping of a touchpad. I read an article this week that described the effect of the smartphone on (1) our ability to relate, one-to-another as social beings; (2) on the expectation that we have, now, of instant-gratification and our growing inability to sit in the place of not-knowing; and (3) the shortening of our attention spans. These are just three of the detrimental effects of regular smart phone use. I have experienced all three: 1. I notice that when I am in a public place waiting in line, like the post-office or the grocery store, my tendency is to pull out my cell phone and catch up on my email. I used to spend that time just observing others, sometimes talking with others in line or (best of all) making eye contact with the toddler, if I was lucky enough to have one in the line in front of or behind me. I used to have a spiritual practice in which I would study the folks in line with me and try to see them as Christ in our midst. Now, I see how many emails have piled up in the time that I’ve been doing my grocery shopping. Mostly, I just look to catch up, but sometimes, I’ll even type a quick response (often with plenty of typos and autocorrect errors) and... because of this multitasking, I might not even recall, later, the details of that e-exchange. 2. My husband and I spend a lot of our weekend time on the road. Pennsylvania is a big place and my Sunday visitations often find us in the car for a few hours at a time early on Sunday morning, or even, heading out on Saturday afternoon, to hole up in a hotel not too far from the next morning’s visitation site. As we drive, we talk- about all sorts of things under the sun. Because we are new to Pennsylvania, we see new things all the time: watercourses, land masses, Amish buggies, coal mines, unharvested corn still standing in fields way past what we thought was harvest- time, giant metal silos, trail markers, museums, factories, etc. Rather than note these new things and wonder about them, together, one of us will say, “I wonder what that is all about...” and the other of us dives onto our phone (usually me) to gather the wisdom of our friend Siri and her cousin Wikipedia, which reveals all, leaving no doubt in our mind, that there is an answer for everything. We’ve learned a lot on these drives, but sometimes I am called back to that central question that we use in Godly Play, in which the storyteller says, “I wonder...” and the children engage their imaginations and their hearts in discovering God’s truth for themselves. Sometimes, wondering and imagining is a good thing and the textbook answer is less helpful, particularly, from a spiritual perspective. Do we really need to know the answer to everything? 3. How long can you sit still? I’ve never been very good at sitting still, but with a smart phone, I’ve noticed my attention span is decreasing due to cultural shifts in the way that information is offered to us: tweets with limited characters, instagram pictures that deliver one-image ideas, news flashes and notifications that run across my screen like a ticker tape, giving me just the surface story of what’s really going on. It’s tempting to think that we get complete information in these tiny bites and to allow ourselves to be satisfied. But there’s always more, and we are losing the cognitive ability to sit and dig deeper, to find the complete, whole, round truth. I’ve been trying to re-train my brain by reading books. Remember them? Hard copy, hold-in-your-hand books. Reading whole books again is a good practice that has stretched out my shrinking attention span. Now, we know that nothing is all bad. Or good, usually. The best answer is usually in the middle. The Benedictine ideal of balance. The Anglican ethos of both/and. I won’t give up my smart phone. It is too valuable a resource for me. But I might try to leave it in my pocket more often- to engage the toddler in some peek-a-boo in the long grocery line. I might allow myself to spend more time down the rabbit hole of imagination instead of allowing wonder to drive me to an instant answer and, yes, I’m going to keep lugging books around with me. Who doesn’t love the heft of a weighty tome and the world of ideas in between the front and back covers? Here’s a link to the article that got me going: https://theamericanscholar.org/saving-the-self-in-the-age-of-the-selfie/#
Once upon a time, my husband and I went to a dinner party at the home of a new friend.
We were excited that we'd been invited- our host was someone new to our church and we really liked him. He was a bachelor, living in a quaint cottage (an old carriage house, I remember) on the edge of town and, from the handful of interactions we'd had with him, he seemed really smart and really fun. We looked forward to the party with great anticipation.
On the evening of the party, we all arrived with various dishes in hand. The cottage was just perfect- cozy with deep couches, a small fireplace in the corner, exposed beams and brick, a long dining table laid with a simple linen cloth the color of cream, broad floorboards and intriguing pieces of art- abstract paintings and a few pieces of sculpture- placed here and there. The conversation was easy, the combination of guests just perfect, and the different offerings of victuals that had been brought along smelled delicious. I don't remember what I brought to share, but I know that it needed a serving spoon.
The host motioned to the single drawer in the tiny kitchen.
"You can find a spoon in there, " he said, and nodded by lifting his chin in the direction of the drawer.
I crossed the room and opened the drawer.
It looked just the like picture, above.
One jumbled, jangled, mess of silverware.
I dug through and found a serving spoon.
So what. Hardly a mic drop, right?
The party was lovely, we stayed until all hours of the night, singing and talking and eating and having fun. We made new friends.
But ten years hence, I can still see that jumbled drawer of silverware in my head.
If you've ever been to my house, you know that housekeeping is not my gift.
I married someone, thank God, who enjoys cleaning and who learned from his mom how to do domestic chores with great proficiency.
After more than three decades of married life, we have a good system worked out where I cook and he cleans. I straighten things up (pens and pencils in the mug on the counter, magazines in the basket on the coffee table, shoes paired and lined up near the door, sofa pillows plumped and set upright, against the back of the sofa,) and he does the deep cleaning- floor washing, vacuuming, hands-and-knees with a spray bottle on the bathroom floor. We get it done. But most important for me is that there is a certain order to things. Now- my own silverware defies obsessively neat nesting, but the pieces mostly cooperate and lie in their appropriate column of the red Rubbermaid divider that keeps order in the drawer.
Some of us crave order and organization. We function best when the little details are ironed out, order is evident and there is some symmetry to the bits and pieces of our lives.
Others of us prefer an unharnessed environment and are more productive and creative when freed from the strictures of organization.
As a leader, I feel compelled to offer both to those whom I serve.
In a couple of days, we will be meeting as the newly expanded Council of Trustees in our diocese.
Changes to our canons at our fall convention increased the size of this group by three members and gave vote to another seven members who, previously, had not had the privilege of voting and, consequently, were not in the habit of attending each meeting. There has been some small amount of concern that this group, in its larger size, might be difficult to manage or at risk of being unproductive. I look forward to helping this group understand the organization of its body, offering new guidelines for participation, creating clean lines of accountability and inviting a process of orientation so that each person has a grasp of their place and role. We need this body to function well- for the sake of our diocese and for the sake of the mission of God.
I also hope to leave room in the structure of our organization to allow for creativity, the breath of God's Holy Spirit, for laughter and joyfulness and for building relationships. Following the theme of our diocese for this year, "Know Your Story, Live it Boldly," we will be spending time reflecting God's Holy Word and connecting stories from our own lives to the stories of salvation. We will be generous in the time needed to build relationships, listening to each other and making space for the spark of new life and growth in God.
I wonder, then, how it is with you?
This season of Advent can be a time of ordering our lives in new ways; for some, it is a letting down or letting go of habits, patterns or structures. (I practice contemplative prayer in this season which is so different than the regular pattern of the Daily Office that I normally read in its ordered form) and for others, it is a time to take on new patterns, rules or gentle guidelines to lead us to a more holy life.
Some of us practice Advent devotions that call for a different deed each day, some participate by reading a new spiritual book, others are intentional about keeping a journal or lighting a candle, night by night, to mark the days in an ordered fashion as we wait, hoping for the coming of Christ.
Which is it for you? And what does your soul need.... this year? In this moment?
Encouragement, from here, to do something different... to try on a new practice. Heck, go and dump out your silverware into the bottom of the drawer... and dare to live in a new way, as, together, we wait in the advent of our Lord.
The election of our new President has been forefront in our
minds in these recent days. For those who had been waiting for Tuesday to come
and for the campaigning, the rancor, and the vitriol to end, there’s been,
perhaps, some disappointment as instead, there has been a new wave of violence and unrest through public protests, incidents in schools, and social
media blowing up with every individual on Facebook offering their own response
to the election results (including me). There are those who are feeling very
vulnerable, disconnected from their communities, fearful and sad.And, safe to say, there are those who are
rejoicing that their candidate prevailed and that it is time to get on with reforming
My work is not primarily in the political realm, though the
things that I care about- and, more importantly, that Jesus cares about- bring
me there, by virtue of my office.As I
said in my Facebook post on Wednesday morning:
And so this morning, our
call as Christians to participate in God’s mission has not changed: feed the
hungry, clothe the naked, care for the poor. Reach out to the margins and
welcome in the stranger, lift up the downtrodden, make free the oppressed. This
includes women, LGBTQI brothers and sisters, Muslims, refugees and all those
subject to the sin of racism. Pray for peace, strive to end gun violence, bind
up the wounds of those who ache. Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s what
the leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, I am committed to caring
deeply for the marginalized and to work to empower others in our diocese to
care, in the name of Jesus for the least of these.This is work that started, for me, more than
a year ago in this place and continues no matter who is sitting behind the desk
in the Oval Office.
so.Let me tell you what I did on
On Monday, the day before
the election, when the nation seemed to be about as tense as a two-inch rubber
band stretched to ten feet, I attended the LARC Day of Dialogue. LARC stands
for Lutheran, Anglican and Roman Catholics in our Commonwealth who have
come together in Covenant Agreement.The
LARC agreement was signed in 1993 to commemorate a movement for “spiritual
understanding, cooperation and unity among Christians and their churches. Four
local church bodies signed the document with a goal of more visible Christian
unity in Central Pennsylvania. The terms of the covenant included prayer said
for the other denominations during worship services; joint retreats for clergy
and parish leadership; pulpit exchanges in non- Eucharistic liturgies; joint
efforts for evangelization and social justice concerns and study of the common
traditions of the churches.”(from a 2007 press release issued by the
Archdiocese of Harrisburg )
These days, the LARC action in Harrisburg has lagged some,
but the LARC Day of Dialogue remains of some interest.On Monday, the topic was Creation
Care.Our guest speaker was Mrs.
Stephanie Cleary of the Archdiocese of Vermont.The title of her lecture and discussion was
“Rooted in Common Ground.”
She spoke eloquently, sharing a recent paper that she had
written responding to the Pope Francis’ second encyclical Laudato Si (trans. “Praise be to You”) : On Care for Our Common
Home which was released on 24 May, 2015.Stephanie lifted salient parts of the text to share with us, discussing
Creation Care, Climate Change and our call to participate in healing the earth
weaving together the areas of Cosmology (our beliefs about Creation),
Anthropology (our beliefs about humankind), and Christology (our beliefs about
Jesus Christ).She talked about the
fallout of global warming and climate change and how those who contribute most
to the problem (that’s us) are the ones least affected.We saw a video of an island culture whose
entire cluster of islands is being compromised and their subsequent immigration
to New Zealand where they face the eventual loss of their cultural identity
altogether. See http://blogs.worldbank.org/peoplemove/climate-change-and-the-migration-fallout for an excellent article on the topic.
The same video showed the loss of land mass in Louisiana and
the effect on the people there.We
learned about “Differentiated Responsibility” in which those with more
resources must lead the change to effect healing.Stephanie quoted Roman Catholic Eco-theologian
Elizabeth Johnson who writes, “Ecological integrity and socioeconomic justice
intertwine in a tight embrace.”
It was a stimulating lecture which invited us, then, to
share in small groups about our own efforts as Christians- corporately and
individually- in Eco-Justice.
I want to know who, in our diocese, is working in the area
of Environmental Justice.
This is an area which needs our efforts of education,
advocacy and action.
In a Commonwealth marked by such striking physical beauty
and natural resources, who, among us, is working with an eye towards justice
and the Common Good?Who, among us, has
grasped the idea of Differentiated Responsibility and is working to heal our earth-not just for our own selves, but for people
far away whose very homes are disappearing, being engulfed by the sea?
Fill me in if you’re on this already.
Let me know if you want to start something.We have a Council of Trustees and a Social
Justice committee who want to support your efforts.
I am proud of the work that we do, as Episcopalians and as
Christians in this place to bring healing and reconciliation in so many
ways.There is no end to the work before
us- until the Last Day- when we will all be redeemed.Until then, we are led by Jesus into the
vineyard to do the work, into our churches to be nourished, nurtured and fed,
and always, to give praise to our great Creator who fashioned this amazing
place that we call home.
I don’t think that it is possible for me to go to Potter County without going on a hike.
Potter County’s nickname is “God’s Country” and it lives up to the name in the amazing natural beauty that is evident around every corner on the winding mountain roads.
I traveled North on Wednesday to spend some time with the Rev. Janis Yskamp and her husband Wayne in the aftermath of a devastating house fire. No one was injured, but everything was lost. And after we spent time on Wednesday touring the rubble, there wasn’t much to do, as the insurance inspector wouldn’t be arriving until Friday.
And so we took to the woods.
Joined by woodsman and hiker Lewis Russell, we four set out on a rainy Thursday on a trail in the woods on Denton Hill, near Coudersport. Wayne let me use his new walking stick which looked surprisingly similar to a crosier- even with a slight bend at the top. And so we began our procession through the woods.
It had rained all morning, and we set out close to noon. The ground was springy and soft and it wasn’t too long before the moisture found its way in through a hole in the toe of my hiking boot and my feet (well, at least one of my feet) were sopping. But there was little time to lament about sodden feet, as Wayne began his familiar banter, entertaining us with stories of people he’d known and places he’d been- Wayne could smoke any Toastmaster’s meeting, for sure. Lewis led the way, Janis played the role of Sweeper (making sure that the bishop didn’t lag behind and wander off the trail) and we made our way deep into the woods on a grey November day.
We walked on trails cut in the woods for cross country skiers and on logging roads. All of these are connected in a trail system and documented on a state map- which we left at home. These three had tromped all over this hill in the past and, with a few comic exceptions, had maneuvered their way around with few problems.
We were a boisterous party, making our way through the woods and any deer or bear were well warned that we were in the ‘hood, so we did not have any wildlife sightings.
But, oh, what I learned.
Wayne, Janis and Lewis are so knowledgeable about the way of the woods and the animals that live in them. It was like walking with a naturalist’s guide to the outdoors. I learned about deer scrubbings- circular patches on the ground where bucks scratch through the leaves and underbrush down to the earth to leave their scent for the does during mating season. The buck makes the circle on the ground, urinates to leave his scent and then- this is the cool part- reaches up to break an overhanging twig and rubs his eye on it to release mucus from his eye, which has another scent to mark and attract the does. The doe, then, comes to the scrubbing, marks it with her urine as a way to let the buck know that she is in the area. The buck returns at sunup and sundown to check the scrubbing and, eventually, the buck and the doe find each other, all facilitated through this system of scrubbing, marking and scenting. FASCINATING. Wayne pointed out about a half dozen of these scrubbings on our walk. Each one, a circular patch about 2 feet in diameter and each one with a broken twig hanging overhead. We saw, too, some “fake” scrubbings which had been set up by hunters who make the scrub and use a bottled potion to scent the circle. But the hunters do not bother to break a twig. We walked past several of these, and determined their authenticity based on the presence of one broken, hanging twig (or not) in the middle of a woods filled with billions of twigs. Wow.
I learned, too, about the process of rubbing- when bucks rub the velvet off of their horns- and how you can track a buck (and how other deer can track their own) by following the progression of logs and trees going up and down a hill, that had been used as rubbing points. I looked up the hill and saw a leafy, pretty hillside. Wayne looked up the same hill and showed me the exact path that a buck had recently traveled based on the rub marks left on the trees on the way up. Wow.
We walked past lots of creeks and streams and I learned about trout pools and the way that they travel through the watercourses.
We laughed at “trees with legs” (trees whose roots were exposed, making them look like legs) and I learned about why they grew this way, in the path of the runoff of water in the spring.
We reached the top of the ridge and Wayne looked across, about 4 miles away, and spotted two hunters in blaze orange.
I learned about clear cutting lumber and the degradation of the forest.
I learned that there is an entire ecosystem and natural course of wildlife that I know so very little about. And I was grateful for the lessons and the time spent in “God’s Country.”
Our hike reminded me of the depth and intricacy of God’s Creation and how, as humans, we are called to tread lightly on this earth, respecting that we are but one part of God’s created order. And I was in awe, again, of the workings of the natural world and our Creator’s design. I remembered that part in Job when God lays it out for him, saying, Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings[a] shouted for joy?
8 “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— 9 when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, 10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, 11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
12 “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, 13 so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? 14 It is changed like clay under the seal, and it is dyed[b] like a garment. 15 Light is withheld from the wicked, and their uplifted arm is broken.
16 “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? 17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? 18 Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this.
This is a bit of a comeuppance for Job, but underscores that we know only a tiny bit of the Creator’s holy design (Well, Wayne seems to know a good deal of it, actually) and possess none of the power.
We put in a good seven miles or so on our walk.
It was a healing, restorative and humbling afternoon.