Monday, August 13, 2007

Perseids, perspectives and patience

Tonight is an anniversary of sorts. A couple of decades ago, my sister and I were encouraged by our dad to stay up late and bed down in our driveway in order to watch a Perseid meteor shower that promised (as has this year's) to be spectacular.

It was a clear night, and the image of those flashes and spears arcing across the heavens is still a profound and holy memory. Lying there next to my sister with Dad watching over us, things slotted into a perspective that I don't think I had ever experienced before in my young life.

I learned that night to see things in a different way...of course, that whole Carl Sagan/COSMOS thing was a program most in my generation grew up on, but that night I got the sense that me, my family, my town and all the rest of the stuff on this little green planet were sort of perched on the edge of some bigger cosmic drama. Thing is, instead of making me feel small, I felt somehow more integral to the whole enterprise. This is not narcissism. Not at all. I wasn't thinking that the meteor shower was a show just for me. I was aware of a sense of playing a part in something greater than myself. My task was to observe, to experience, this event. To be a witness.

I have had that same feeling since then, both in good times and ill.

One night in seminary, when I was a student chaplain, I had a "bad" duty night and spent some time in the wee hours outside the hospital, trying to get some respite from the death and dying that seemed to be overwhelming the world. Around three in the morning, the city of Brooklyn has a distinctly different feel than it has during the day. Sure, the noise, the light and even most of the people are still there...but just like meteors plying the night sky, I got the sense that something deeper was pulsing around me. Even with all the death and dying I had experienced in that 24 hour period...there was still life, still a pulse throbbing around me. I was still alive. The city was still alive. Even the dead were experiencing new life in Christ. It didn't change the struggle. It just put it into perspective.

Another time, I was in the midst of some nasty conflict in a parish where I served as an assistant, and as if on Shakespearean cue a hurricane blew through the community. Lying there in my bed that night, I could actually feel the building pulsing around me. With all that was going on in the parish, with all that my boss the rector had to deal with and with all the blow back I was beginning to feel kick back onto me, it was like the parish's struggles had taken physical form. The winds were howling, the trees outside the window were in full seizure and the rain seemed to be working its way up from the ground, even as it fell from the sky...

...but the real holy moment came the next morning. I have never, ever, ever tasted air so fresh, so clean. It was that moment, walking out into air that had been blown clean by such unimaginable natural violence, that allowed me to put the rest of the parish's stuff back together in my head.

And today, I felt it again...but in a slightly different way.

I went outside a little while ago, and did indeed see some meteors doing their flash thing just "south" of the north star in the heart of the constellation Perseus. I had that same feeling of awe and that same sense of the "long view" kicked in...but there was some melancholy attached to it, as well.

I had a humbling experience after Church today in which I found some notes critical of my sermon left on the table in the Narthex. Nothing scathing...just some scratches...but they did scratch on a personal level.

Now, I don't have a very thin skin. There have been enough years in the pulpit pushed under my collar to take a poke or three, and my callouses seem thick enough. But all the same, a poke is a poke. Truth be told, I receive criticism all the time as the rector of a vibrant parish. There is a lot to keep up with, and people bring a great deal of passion to their work, life and ministries in this place. With a word or action...or for the lack of same, I easily trigger any number of conflicts. That is the nature of my work and my authority as rector. The buck stops on my desk. Still, as I have learned, it remains a truth that no matter how hard it does get in any one moment, it is important to "take the long view" at the same time.

I can think back easily over the last couple of months to both the criticisms and praise I have gotten as rector here at Trinity, and give thanks for all of those pokes and back slaps with prayers of thanksgiving. Sermons, liturgies, policy choices, any number of things. Being the one charged with deciding what to do automatically opens you up to being accepted and rejected due to what you say, what you do or the choices you make. Not giving praise to God as the one who called me into the midst of these experiences would be breaking my vows as a priest.

So, today is a moment when yet again that "long view" theology comes into play. There was that note. There were also people who came up to me to shake my hand and to congratulate me for "hitting the nail on the head" and "really telling it like it is."

Here is the challenge: when it comes to taking it all in...the praise, the criticism, the ambivalent "whatevers" have to accept that it is all coming to you as a gift. Same as those meteors. Same as those hurricanes. Same as that reassuring pulse of the city in the earliest hours of the day. How we choose to learn from those love and be mindful of everyone around us...and then to move forward with the gift of the long view...

Well, perhaps that is grace.

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