Remembering Aunt Darla

My Aunt Darla was one of God’s special beloved.  The medical community has words to describe her – nonverbal, neuro-atypical, differently-abled, and more hurtful words – but to us – to me – she was just a loved and special part of our family.  Many people in my family have a special connection to beloved children of God like Darla, and I never ceased to be amazed at the love and compassion that she was shown by people I would not necessarily describe as loving and compassionate otherwise.

That ability to connect with her did not come easily to me, or maybe not even at all.  I always felt that love for her, but that connection was not my gift (which saddens more than a little today).

But in her I saw a special gift I pray for myself: an ultimate vulnerability, a complete lack of mask or deception, fully bringing everything about herself to every moment.  I pray and dream of the moment where I can bring half of my true self to anything; she just naturally did it.

She was a complete and whole beloved child of God, no need for correction nor fixing.  I do not say that she had an easy life – or a pain-free life – but she was beloved exactly as she was.  I could not always see that, but I know it to be true.

Last night my Aunt Darla passed away from COVID-19.  She spent a week on a ventilator but was, ultimately, too weak to recover.  Thankfully my grandparents were able to spend the last moments with her, but most of that time they had to stay away.  I don’t know if she knew what was going on before they sedated her, but I know it had to be very confusing to be without anyone she knew in those last moments awake.

For the past week or so, a verse from Matthew has not been far from my mind: “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matthew 25:40 CEB)

I know Darla was well cared for her entire life – my grandparents, the staff at the facility she lived, the doctors and nurses who cared for her at the end.  Those people are light in this world, a reflection of perfect love.

On Friday my family will be wearing red – her favorite color – and you are welcome to join us, but I more hope and pray that you can find your way to do for the least and the lowest.  Protect the most vulnerable, support the most downtrodden, lift the most beaten, sacrifice your own desires for the needs of those whose needs aren’t fulfilled.

“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matthew 25:40 CEB)

You will be dearly missed, Aunt Darla.  I pray I can someday reflect as much of Christ’s love as you did.

– Robby

“Where are you, God?”: A lament

I wake up almost every morning and look at my phone. My social media reads a litany of pain and suffering. The news reads a litany of ever-evolving chaos and glaringly inadequate response. Fear, anger, sickness, hopelessness; we have almost nothing else to share in this time, they have nothing else to report at this time.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

Two white men chased down and hunted a black man like they would a wild animal. The wheels of justice has just now – after months – started to turn after the African American community had to risk their lives protesting to make it start. No one has charged them yet. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations basically said the men had the legal right to perform a “citizen’s arrest” on him and, when he rightly resisted, murder him.

And I have no words.

My savior, my teachers, my parishioners, my God require that I speak out and condemn racism. My dear friend lives in fear of when her beautiful young son can make someone “fear for their life” by simply existing. My heart aches in remembrance of a time when I would have defended these men instead of seeing the blatant racism at work. My soul demands justice, yet justice seems to retreat as racism takes a stronger hold on our nation.

And I have no words.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

The past few days have fill themselves with conspiracies. People I love – and people who serve congregations as pastor – have spread misinformation about COVID-19, dangerous misinformation that threatened to harm the people they served. People want to resume normal life – a life that will no loner exist when this ceases – and that desire has blinded them to truth.

Some of our governments have chosen the economy over the least and the lowest. They demand the poorest and most vulnerable risk their lives to survive. They have suggested churches serve as the “test group” for reopening everything. They have the ability and resources to create safety nets for those most at risk and instead create safety nets for the richest and least at risk.

I have words, I have spoken words, and they have fallen deaf on the ears of those who can make decisions.

Our governments have all but said these decisions will unnecessarily kill people, but the economy needs the sacrifice. Our market economy – not the makers, not the producers, not the laborers, but the market that declares values on nothing more than speculation – demands a sacrifice, and the weakest and lowest will serve as that sacrifice.

We can protect human survival of the least and the lowest, yet we protect the economy.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

Exhaustion has taken me. Though so many other things – much more important things – weigh heavy on my shoulders, the hours and energy I must exert to keep a church going have drained me. When I feel guilty over only working 50 hours this week – and that exhausting me – I know burnout has come.

And I have no solution. I have no alternatives aside from scrapping our entire worship service and creating something less – which also will take energy and creativity I do not think I have.

God instructed the Israelites to plant gardens in their exile, but I do not even know what seeds and vegetables look like in this exile from what I know. I cannot till ground I do not see, I cannot sow seeds I do not have, and I cannot harvest something I would not even recognize.

But I will stay in this exile for as long as the safety of the people I serve requires. I just do not know how I will survive it.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

I do not hear your voice, God. I do not see your hand. I do not know how to keep sharing your Word in this time. I do not know how to speak as a prophet in this time. I do not hear your calling me in the night, I do not hear you calling me to your temple, I do not hear your calling me at all.

I thought I had experienced a “Dark Night of the Soul” previously, but I realized now I had heard God calling me. God did not answer my question of “Why?”, but God did keep calling me to continue on, preserver, and fight for the privilege of sharing God’s Word and Christ’s sacraments.

Now I do not hear God. I believe God does not call people to simply survive and for churches to simply survive, but I only hear that call. God has stopped making God’s presence known to me.

I need guidance now more than ever, yet God’s voice has left me.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

Other voices have not. When I post this, someone will try to fix it. Someone will admonish me for not feeling God. Someone will say, “It will all get better.”  Someone will lovingly ask me how I am in a week, expecting things to get better and unprepared to hear that nothing gets better right now, just varying degrees of bad.

I need to lament, and my lament will not end. My pain has not lessened, my frustration has not lessened, my exhaustion has not lessened. I have no end in sight; I find myself exiled from all the things I know and all the self-care practices I have used. Even if I could take a vacation right now – which I cannot – I would spend that vacation in my house in which my living rooms serves as my office and my pulpit.

Someone will have the answer to my lament because they cannot bear to sit with my lament.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

I lament, and yet, like the psalmist, I continue to ask God for relief.

Come, Lord Jesus, come. Please, come to me and speak to me again.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

Opening Too Early

I will start this by saying that, if I have unfounded fears, I will very publicly eat my words.  I, like everyone else, pray that this all declines and life can resume.  I want to, in four weeks, say, “I was wrong, and my fears were unfounded.”

But my observations of history, the current trends, and the words of experts make me thing that we have not found the end of this and a second wave will happen as we open back up.

I first must say that I do not have an argument against everything people have said about the downsides of closing.  Yes, closing has exacerbated socio-economic problem.  Yes, closing has exacerbated mental health issues.  Yes, limiting elective surgeries – and declaring some necessary surgeries elective – has exacerbated and risked lives.

No one can – or will – argue the truth of these issues.  They are real.  We may wildly disagree on how to mitigate these realities, but we all know they are real and serious.

When someone says that we should not reopen too soon, they do not argue we should ignore these realities or sacrifice those suffering from these realities for the good of other people.

Our concern lies with the second wave because the second wave will also exacerbate these things, likely exacerbating them longer than if we had just stayed closed long enough.  Opening too early will not have a lasting positive effect.  It will temporarily relieve it, but the ensuing wave and closing will re-exacerbate everything, and for longer because the second wave is always worse than the first and will force a longer closing.

I must address something else.  I have seen zero debate about this.  I have seen virtue signaling, accusations of “vileness” and “hatred,” name calling, and blinding anger.  And, as a confession, I have been as guilty as anyone.

Accusing each other of disregarding the needs of the least and the lowest without actually naming their ways and simply angrily repeating your concerns – or worse, parroting the talking points provided to you by people who care not at all about the least and the lowest but benefit greatly by those least and lowest returning to work – will not help and will only sow divisions in this time of isolation.  And frankly, it does not move us to a better understanding of what we should do.

I will not say much publicly on the issue as I have been doing, but I will covenant with everyone that when I do, I will address what I see, why I disagree with it, and do so without accusations and name calling.  I ask that you do the same.

We can get through this, we can find a path that addresses the pandemic and the societal problems exacerbated by it, and we can do so without hatred, but we must actively and intentionally do so – and maybe sacrifice our own desires and needs in the process.

Peace,
– Robby

Let Me Lament

If you read this and you hear yourself echoed, know I feel your love and I understand why you try to make things feel better.  I get it, I truly do.

But please, let me lament.  Let me be sad and angry at things.  Let me not be okay with the fact that things go wrong.  Let me want to do better and struggle with the reality that I cannot.  Let me feel frustration when things outside of my control derail my effort.

Let me be not okay.

I appreciate you wanting me to have a healthier relationship with my own inherent inadequacy.  I appreciate the love you show me when I get really frustrated and want to quit.  I appreciate you wanting me to see the good in my work.  I appreciate you wanting me to know God loves me and my offerings.

I really do appreciate it.

But I need to mourn and lament.  Every week something new goes wrong.  Every week something inside my control and something outside my control fails.  Every week I have to fix something in service that threatens to derail the service.

Every week something negates – at least in part – my hours of work and labor.

I do not need public reminders of my status of beloved amidst of my lament.  I do not need suggestions on how to do my ministry differently amidst my lament.  I do not need to hear how you have an easier method and explain why I made the conscious decision to not do things that way.  I do not need to feel like I need to apologize for my frustration amidst my lament.

I need to lament and mourn.  Please, just let me be not okay with this and let me be frustration when things that should work do not.

Peace.
– Robby

I Am Weary

I have grown so weary.

It was supposed to get easier after Easter.  For some pastors it did.  My problems seem to not stop.

When do I get to rest?  When do I get to breathe?  Why am I so worn when I am not anything but a worship leader?

My therapist told me to not minimize my own struggles, but how do you not?  All I do is put together a worship service.  I do not go to hospitals and care for patients, I do not risk my life to stock groceries and check customers out for garbage pay, I work from home – a quite comfortable home – and have no schedule.

Why am I so weary?

Why do I put in so much effort?  Do I actually do something more than people who put in less?  Do my offerings match the effort I put into them?

Why do I worry so much about it?  Why can I not just be okay with enough?  Why can I not see my offering as enough?

If I actually put this into the public, someone will tell me I am enough and to not beat myself up.  Someone will try to make me feel better.  Someone will read it and wonder why I wrote this to complain.

Maintaining my pastoral identity – and my professional identity – makes me weary.  The amount of work I must put into to maintain my identity as a pastor makes me weary.  The energy I must give to be myself in this time makes me weary.

Nothing just works.  Zoom meetings randomly decide to not let me in.  Facebook crashes.  I forget to change a setting on my router and lose the service halfway through on Easter – a service I put many hours and much stress into.  On-the-fly corrections do not really work in this space.  Flexibility has gone from ministry because I cannot just change someone last minute.  Everything must be planned and executed, and then something not working will destroy all that work and planning.

I just want to stop.  I just want to be done.  I just want my home to no longer be my chancel and my office.  I just want to preach again in my physical pulpit.

I want to be seen.  I want people to understand the sheer volume of work I do – work I never excelled at and clearly should not do professionally.  I want people to see that I am making an offering that will be insufficient by the world’s standards but is so much more than I could be doing.  I want people to see how much I struggle to balance my need for a sustainable ministry and my call to provide a full worship service – and not chastise and scold me for it.

And I want to be enough.  But I am not.  God makes me enough, somehow, but I am not, and my offerings are inadequate.  I want people to just hear that, not try to fix it, not try to explain it away, but just hear my struggles and empathize with them.

I am weary, and I do not know how to not be weary.

No More Heroes

I recently had two thoughts.

Thought 1:  I have grown weary of “thought leaders” and famous pastors.  Nothing new – I rant about that all the time – but they keep getting shoved in my face.  One, in particular, has “Stuff That Needs To Be Said” at the top of his website.  I also have pastor friends and colleagues who have started calling themselves “prophet” without disdain and bitterness in their mouths, a la Biblical prophets.

I decided to start discounting everything written by someone who calls themselves a prophet and everything written by people who have no humility.  Did I make a healthy or good decision?  Maybe, maybe not, but I just cannot do it anymore.  No one has exclusive knowledge of the will of God and no prophet wants the job – just ask Jonah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.

Thought 2:  I idolize Fred Rogers.  Literally have a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood coffee mug sitting right beside me.  (Nora got it for me, and it features Fred switching from blazer to cardigan if you fill it with hot liquid.  I love it and will drink “church coffee” sometimes just to use it.)  I want my pastoral ministry to mirror and mimic his television ministry in terms of love, vulnerability, authenticity, and intentionality.  I do a thing – I think we all do – where I look at my ministry and I compare it to my exemplar, in this case Fred Rogers.

Guess how I see myself stacking up?  I am a grumpy, curmudgeonly pastor for 33 years old; Fred certainly was not.  I certainly do not live up to the image of Fred Rogers, even if I wear the cardigan and have a warmth of curmudgeonly attitude.

I will always fall short of the example of a man lifted to be about a quarter of a step below Jesus, especially since my ministry will always look radically different than his and I have responsibilities I think he would have struggled with given his attitudes and personality.

Breath Break: As I got to this point, this wonderful song started going through the headphones. Prepare yourself for the Early-00’s music video goodness!

I realized, in a moment of clarity, both thoughts come from the same coin.  Humans have this problem with deifying other humans.  We lift people to god-status and allow them to direct us as if they have a special link to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.  Oddly, but unsurprisingly, the people we place in those ivory towers tend to benefit – richly – from our deification of them.

But what about people like Fred Rogers?  Yes, he got to do something amazing for his entire career and had people to support him, but he wanted almost nothing to do with the fame it gave him.  Should we not try to live up to his standard?

We forget that everyone is fallen and sinful, even those we lift as great.  I bet, if we had a conversation with Joanne and his sons, we might see a man, lovely and wonderful, but just as flawed and broken as the rest of us.  And, if he had the humility I believe he had, he would want nothing more than for us to be the best versions of ourselves, not a version of ourselves that matches him.

In my younger years, I had a wise attitude – even if it came from a place of hostility and arrogance – that I would have no heroes.  Every human fails us, and, if we cannot live up to the example of another human, we do not know the fullness of their humanity.  Yet, as I grew up, matured in faith, and became good at a ministry, I decided to cast idols in the forms of humans instead of being the best version of myself.

I did this with a pastor and author, recently, and I had a friend very aggressively destroy that idol – from personal experience – for me.  I forgot how much I value humility and lifting other voices in my colleagues, and I wonder why I could not see the absence of those things in my idols.  (I know why I idolized this person – and I still think they did something I want to learn from – but these things mean to much more to me than success.)

And again, the ones who will not fail us as idols want nothing more than for none of us to idolize them.  True prophets do not want the role of prophecy – and give all honor to God.

No more heroes, just good people we learn from and see as human – flawed and loving all the same.

No idea if this makes sense – and this is a first draft – but I recently made myself a promise that I would write and blog more, and they can’t all be zingers. Thus, I published…

Peace,
– Robby

I Love/Hate My Voice

I have a naturally loud voice.  Just…loud.  As a kid I could never automatically speak in an “inside voice”; it always required conscious modulation.  I constantly got told, “Be quieter!  Talk quieter!  Use your ‘inside voice’!”  Constant, unending admonitions to “be quieter” when I simply used the voice God gave me.

It constantly frustrated me.  I wanted to behave and yet I always failed at this despite doing nothing actually wrong.  Being constantly corrected for my natural voice just made me feel broken in some way.  Obviously I could not articulate that at the time, but it wears on a person to constantly hear that they have to change something inherent about themselves to fit into the requirements for a particular group.

(Sound familiar?  Judging a person based on their inherent qualities?  Trying to correct and punish away the way God made a person?)

As I grew up and matured, I figured out how to “automatically” modulate my volume to a situationally-appropriate level.  I quote “automatically” because any time I would get excited, get frustrated, get anything other than normal, that modulation would disappear and my natural volume level would come back.  And someone would always pop up to make sure I know I got “too loud” and I needed “be quieter.”

I experienced this well into adulthood.  Occasionally my loud voice would benefit me – I always enjoyed public speaking and, for a time, theater, two areas my strong voice served as a boon – but usually I had to consciously make sure my voice never got too loud.  And I failed constantly; I could never verbally communicate “behind the scenes” in a play without someone hearing me that should not hear me.

Oh, and you cannot convince people you are shy and self-conscious when you always have a strong voice.  Unless I actively have tears streaming out of my eyes, my voice does not waiver.  I get anxious and nervous, and I feel the physical manifestations of those emotions, but my voice does not show it.

Seminary did something magical for me: it made my voice good.  Not to say the majority of people wanted to hear my words or my opinions, but my physical voice suddenly became an actual asset to my life and ministry.  I can speak in front of a group of people in my natural voice – at its natural volume – and those people can generally hear and understand me without a microphone.

Despite that, though, I still had people tell me that I needed to “be quieter.”  Honestly, any time I get excited, someone will tell me I am too loud because the volume modulation still goes away when I focus on my excitement instead of my properness.

I am 32 years old.  I have been ordained for nearly two years, graduated from seminary for six years, and I still have friends and colleagues tell me I am too loud whenever I get excited.

I recently had this happen three times in the course of a month, and I realized how much it hurts to get excited and have someone, every time, tell you that you are too loud.

One has stuck with me and probably why I spent time thinking about it.  I went to a retreat and learning program (CREDO for Presbyterian and Episcopal folks) and one of the facilitators gave an amazing sermon.  I think everything happened the next evening during fellowship with drinks.  The facilitator was immediately behind me at a different table and the conversation around my table moved to how great of a sermon she gifted us with.

I wanted to tell her and had not had a chance to, so I turned around in my excitement and, with my unmodulated voice – excitement and a couple of drinks contributing – went to tell her that I really appreciated her sermon.

Obvious my loud voice startled her because…well, because and I cannot judge anyone for my voice and mannerisms startling them.  The comment made was, “How does it feel to be yelled at by a bearded, white man?”

I simply wanted to tell a colleague that I appreciated the gift of her sermon and instead I became a bearded white man yelling at an Asian woman.

I do not necessarily begrudge anyone for how it played out – I am also awkward and having my unmodulated voice unexpectedly put in your direction is probably startling – but it hurts when you get told that your expression of excitement is unacceptable and every verbalized moment of excitement or energy gets deflated.

I try to tell myself I love my voice.  When I step into a pulpit – physical or metaphorical – I do not worry about the physical voice that needs to come from within me.  People understand the words that come out of my mouth.  I have never lost my physical voice.

But I actually find myself hating it more than loving it.  I hate that my frustration and exacerbation get heard as rage and fury.  I hate that I cannot verbalize my excitement and actually speak into my energy.  I hate that I am 32 years old and I still do not have a quiet enough voice for my friends and colleagues.  I hate that I have to modulate my voice in every conversation, even if I can do it automatically 80% of the time.

And I hate having a loud voice when I simply want to be heard in a conversation and not seen as trying to dominate the conversation, and I want people to understand that my soul’s voice often refuses to speak.

If I can offer an aside: when a child loudly brings you their excitement, maybe we find a way to just focus on the excitement instead of deflating it to reduce its physical volume.  I do not think you need to allow kids to scream, but some kids just have a loud voice and telling them that their natural voice is bad will follow them into their adulthood.

Just a thought.

Peace,
– Robby