A Helping Incident: “I was just there to change a gas meter…”

hero-Clinical-Pastoral-Education

In addition to seminary, one of the requirements for ordination in the Episcopal Church is participation in a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program. CPE programs are designed to help people develop skills for pastoral care, especially in the context of crisis. Most CPE students work in hospitals, but some also work in prisons, churches, homeless ministries, hospices, etc. The program is designed not only to develop interpersonal skills, but to also develop some deep self-reflective practices which will help a pastor stay healthy and better personally process the crises of others. It’s typical for seminarians to participate in a CPE program after their first year of seminary, and I have been working on preparations to make that happen for myself. Last week I sent in my first application to a CPE program, and it was a lot of work! For example, the first question was: “Provide a reasonably full account of your life.” I ended up writing 10 single spaced pages for the entire application. One of the questions I found interesting was about describing a “helping incident” and I thought I’d share my response with you.

You can listen to my audio response or read my written response below.

5. An account of a “helping incident” in which you were the person who provided the help. Include the nature and extent of the request, your assessment of the issue(s), problem(s), situation(s). Describe how you came to be involved and what you did. Give a brief, evaluative commentary on what you did and how you believe you were able to help.

While in graduate school I worked as a contractor for gas companies. The work consisted of knocking on doors unannounced and asking if I could update their gas meters or make an appointment to do so. In order to complete my work I had to go inside the house and often pull out their stove and other appliances to check for gas leaks. Surprisingly, the nature of the work involved an intimacy with people. I would often catch people vulnerable in their own home before they had the chance to clean up or put on their “public” self and found it important to hold that space as sacred. I often got caught up in conversations with people, and they shared with me much about their lives, fears and all. The work didn’t seem much different from giving pastoral visits besides working on their gas meters. I have a lot of stories from the time I worked there.


One of these visits was at the apartment of an older woman. I had finished my work outside and came inside to check her appliances. As I worked we talked and she asked if I was in school and I shared with her I was working on a MA in Theology and hoped to become a priest. Often when I shared that information, people would either close off or open up. There was always a definite change in people’s demeanor, but most of the time it meant they opened up as it did in this particular case. The woman began to share with me how lonely she was. It had been 9 months since the passing of her husband of 40 years and she still hadn’t gotten used to life without him. I could tell she deeply missed him. When I finished my work we continued talking and she took me through her home telling stories and sharing pictures of her husband. She showed me nicknacks they had acquired throughout the years and even showed me where he had died in that very apartment. She asked me what I thought about the afterlife and where her husband might be and I talked about the mystery of what’s next and the eternity of God’s love. She shared with me her own faith. We probably spent 45 minutes to an hour talking and in her tears we ended our time with a brief prayer and I went on my way.


I think of this as a “helping incident” because even though she didn’t directly ask for help and I wasn’t there specifically to help, in her loneliness she needed someone with whom she could talk. She needed reassurance of her own life and purpose and the eternal destiny of her husband. I wasn’t there as a clergy member, or a friend, I was there simply to work on the gas meter but I made sure I was attentive to her as a human being and not simply a customer. I could have finished my work and left right away and it wouldn’t have been inappropriate. We were paid by the meter and I could have been off to the next one to make more money, but I felt in that moment God’s Spirit leading me to simply listen to the woman, which is what I mostly did. I didn’t actually say all that much. I just listened. I let her show me pictures and tell her stories. I just paid attention, and I think that’s all she wanted in that moment. I was able to give that to her, and it wasn’t hard to do. It was certainly intimidating for me. I don’t have a lot of experience with that kind of pastoral care and it tends to take me time to connect with strangers, but I really felt like this was an important moment for me to share with her and follow the Spirit’s leading. My only regret is that I didn’t keep in touch with her. It wasn’t my role to keep in touch and I don’t know if it would have been appropriate to stay in touch with a customer or not, but I wish I had at least given her a follow up call later. Whatever the case, I believe that was an important moment for both me and her, and it was particularly so because neither of us expected it in the moment. I was just there to change a gas meter. But sometimes God has other plans.

The Surprising Nature of Call

Tomorrow my son, Bear, starts his first day of PK 3, and as excited as he is about school, my wife and I are feeling weighed down by his fear of being in a new place without us. Bear is a very shy little boy, and although he can be very social, he doesn’t have much experience being outside the presence of family. Tomorrow is also his birthday! Three years ago we were living with my mom, grandmother, and brother and brought our newborn baby into a home with their loving support. Two years ago we moved to Atlanta and lived in the basement of LauraAnn’s parents where Bear continued to be in the loving presence of close family. Moving to Texas is of course a big step for myself, but it might just be an even bigger step for Bear who has never been anywhere in his life without family, and yet now, his mother will be working, his father will be in seminary, and he will be in preschool!

As I mentioned, Bear is very excited, but already twice since moving we have had to leave him with a babysitter where he screamed and cried for hours until we returned. So we are nervous about how school will go. It’ll be easier with time, but it sure is heavy on our shoulders at the moment.

Tonight, the night before school begins for Bear and orientation begins for me, I am feeling something weighty, and I’m not sure what it is. It’s part emotion, part thought, and part physical sensation. It’s a mix of deep gratitude and pain. It feels like birth and death. I can sense it pulsing in my shoulders and down my arms into my hands, and I can’t quite place its meaning. After some time in prayer it drove me out of my new home barefoot into the streets to walk and listen and sense late into the night. So much is going on in our lives right now and I think I am simply feeling all of it bearing down on me.

And while I say it feels like pain and death, I also say it feels like gratitude and birth. After walking around the block I sat on the steps leading up to our seminary’s place of worship, Christ Chapel, and I just felt an incredible amount of gratitude for being here. I whispered into the night, “why the heck am I here?” I say those words with a sense of fear and confusion as in, “why did I come half way across the country instead of stay home?” But I say them also with a sense of unworthiness and gratitude as in, “why am I here, in this holy place, where you have invited me?”

Like Bear, I have spent my whole life seeking the shelter of family and the protective presence of the things I know and with which I am comfortable. At Bear’s age, I too, cried for hours in the church nursery. In Kindergarten I remember my dad sitting for a while in the back of class because I refused to let him leave. I was shy growing up. And while now I may be able to go to school without dad sitting in the back of my classroom, I have found other ways to gravitate towards comfort and security.

When I was visiting seminaries to choose where might be a good fit, the bishop’s office asked me to be aware and open to surprise. When we came to Seminary of the Southwest, I initially felt no connection or desire to move here. For one, I had no intention of moving to TX, but also, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ethos of the community. I was looking for something solid in a seminary. I imagined being in a place as close to a monastery as I could get. I wanted tradition, formality, high academic expectations, depth, and a sense that I was connected to an ecclesial tradition that went all the way back to the great councils of the church. But here in Austin, the chapel doesn’t look like a chapel, the professors go by their first names, and smells and bells seem to be in little demand. I was not looking for a place like this. But upon spending a day or two visiting, my family and I felt a deep sense of peace and a great desire to be here! Where on earth did that come from? We were indeed surprised! Later that week we visited another beloved seminary that met the marks on all those “solid” things for which I was looking, a place I had already spent a good amount of time and knew I loved, and immediately upon arrival, we mysteriously felt completely out of place. I truly believe that God has called us here to Seminary of the Southwest.

I have a book entitled, “The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton.” It’s a bit of a funny premise because for those of you that know Thomas Merton, he was a Benedictine, Cistercian monk, not a Franciscan friar. While Franciscans are known for being more casual, doing active work, and planting themselves right in the middle of the insecurity of the world, Benedictines are known for planting themselves away from the world in a very disciplined and structured life of prayer and work. Both Franciscans and Benedictines often value very similar things, but they tend to put their emphasis in slightly different places. Benedictines tend to be solid and Franciscans tend to be fluid. To put it entirely too simplistic, Benedictine communities could be characterized as introverted and Franciscans extroverted. Thomas Merton, as a Cistercian monk, was in a very solid place. And yet, the book points out, long before he became a monk, he pursued a life as a Franciscan. Thomas’ personality was extremely extroverted, artistic, and fluid. He loved experiencing all the world had to offer and had no intention of leaving it. But through an interesting series of events, somehow God surprised him and led him to the Cistercians. If you know much about the life of Merton, you’ll know that he certainly didn’t become the typical monk and he greatly challenged the balance and ethos of the community. He constantly pushed the norms and found himself the exception to the rule. And yet Thomas, himself, was also deeply stretched by the experience. God had called him out of the world for a while to a place more solid than his fluid personality, and found his big personality countered in a way that brought a new balance he never could have experienced while in the world. Thomas Merton may have been Franciscan spirited, but God called him to a Benedictine community to perhaps prod that community out of spiritless routine a bit and bring discipline and structure to his free spirit.

Sometimes God calls us to a place that might be the opposite of where we feel like we most fit in. I have always craved stability, structure, and discipline—some place solid and away from the world. But God has consistently led me to the very opposite.

After college when I was looking for a spiritual community I was deeply attracted to the Benedictine way of life, but somehow God led me to the Franciscans where I have been stretched, challenged, balanced and loved in a way I couldn’t have been somewhere else. As a Franciscan tertiary in the Third Order, Society of St. Francis, I am continually finding myself in places I least expect and most need to be. I think the same thing is happening here at Seminary of the Southwest.

Sitting there on the steps of Christ Chapel, I noticed how much the building represented this tension in me. I’ll be honest, the chapel, architecturally, has been a disappointment to me. It doesn’t seem to make sense. It doesn’t look like most churches. It only has windows on one side and the roof slopes not to the center, but to the side without windows. Nothing is balanced or symmetrical about it. The chairs and setup of the furniture shifts according to season, but no matter how they are set up, they never seem to look quite in place. There is no crucifix or cross on the inside, and it has sliding glass doors. When I first entered I felt disoriented, out of place, and honestly wondered if the building had been badly converted into a chapel after a previous life as some kind of storage facility. Besides the stones themselves, there is nothing solid about this chapel. And yet, I realized that is entirely the point. Christ Chapel invites us into impermanence, flexibility, movement, fluidity, and openness to the world. You cannot retreat from Austin in Christ Chapel. Even the cross is intentionally placed outside of the structure beckoning the worshiper back out into the streets. With that little shift in understanding, my eyes opened to the great beauty of the building. While sitting there on the steps tonight, I became so keenly aware of the holiness into which the building invites us. Christ Chapel is an absolute work of genius (And I can’t wait to read more about its architect, Arthur Fehr, who has other works in the Austin area. Read a description about Christ Chapel from our Dean, here.).

Impermanence, flexibility, movement, fluidity. These are the exact things I need in being formed as a priest. If left to my own devices, I’d retreat from the world and never come back. Some people (like perhaps Thomas Merton) need to spend some extra time away from the world. But I am not one of them. Sure everyone needs to take a retreat sometimes, but I am the one who naturally wants to run from the world and bury my face in my mom and dad’s arms. I am the one who too often wants to hide from the world. I am the one who wants to feel sheltered in the Power and Strength of an Age-Old and Time-Tested Church. I want everything to be firm and solid!

So I don’t need to work much on being more solid. I need to work on being more fluid. I need to work on engaging the world. I need to experience what it feels like to be in flux and in the street. And in doing so, I think I will continue to find a deeper balance between the internal and external, the contemplative and active, the Benedictine and Franciscan. Not everyone is called in this way, but I am certainly noticing it becoming a common theme in my life.

I am incredibly grateful to be here in this place and surprised by the great wisdom, mercy, and calling of God. I am so utterly grateful. I pray that I continue to be open to surprising things and the unpredictable moving of the Spirit.

We’ve made it to Austin!

We’ve made it to Austin! The boxes are unpacked, the books are shelved, the loft is built, LauraAnn has started her new job, and I can’t wait for New Student Orientation at Seminary of the Southwest on August 18th. Thanks to everyone who helped get us here through prayers, financial contributions, verbal encouragements, and good wishes. We couldn’t have done it without you. Continue to keep us in your prayers over the next few weeks and the next three years! #seminary #ATX #TheEpiscopalChurch #tinyliving#happyliving

www.DerekMichaelLarson.com

Update: The Final Push!

IMG_3881
Hi all! It’s officially July and we only have 22 days until the big move! Today was our last Sunday at St. George’s Church and I had the opportunity to share the reflection on scripture. Next week I’ll be heading to another seminary, The University of the South, to work at SUMMA Student Theological Debate Society camp for high school students. When I get back, we’ll be loading up and moving to Seminary of the Southwest!

Everything is finally coming along and fitting into place. We’ve started packing, enrolled Bear in an Episcopal Day School down the road from where we will be living, and most recently, found out LauraAnn has been hired as an Assistant Teacher at Bear’s new preschool in another class! We are feeling blessed.

IMG_3882We certainly could still use your help though! LauraAnn’s salary will be our primary income while I am in school full time and we will be taking a significant pay cut. We could use help with Bear’s tuition, rent and utilities, groceries, the cost of insurance, and other everyday expenses that add up quickly. Seminary is expensive!

We could also use help paying for our moving expenses which include a truck rental, apartment deposits, gas, license and car registration fees, etc. Moving is expensive!

Please consider sharing this page or making a donation to our seminary fundraising site. YouCaring will be shutting down at the end of the month, so I am encouraging people to contribute by July 15th (just 10 days away!).


https://www.youcaring.com/derekmichaellarson

Thanks for all your love and support!

Scripture Reflection for Ordinary Time, Proper 9

Hello all,

Today was my last Sunday (at least for a while) worshiping with St. George’s Episcopal Church in Griffin, GA. Next week I’ll be on my way to SUMMA Theological Debate Camp at Sewanee, and when I return we’ll be on the road to Austin!

Today, before I embark on my journey, I had the opportunity to share again a reflection on the scriptures. Read it here by clicking HERE.

 

conversion of Friar Bernard
The Conversion of Bernard, First Companion of St. Francis

 

Celebration of the 2018 Eighth Grade Class

Homily
8th Grade Celebration, May 2018
St. George’s Episcopal School
Milner, GA

Derek M. Larson, Chaplain

laura-james-sermon-on-the-mount-2010_u-l-pg4jbc0Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek, the hungry, the merciful. Blessed are you when people hurt you. Blessed. At the end of every year we gather and hear these words. For some reason we’ve decided that in this celebration and recognition of this class, the beatitudes are what we want to hear. And it makes sense. It’s a great and challenging passage of scripture. It’s one of my favorites. This passage sums up most of Jesus’ message. I often tell people that every Christian should have it memorized. And some of you do! Blessed.

As I was preparing for today I was thinking, though, why is it appropriate for this celebration, in particular. I think one reason is that it’s quite a familiar scene. Jesus is, after all, a teacher. And his disciples are students. And here we have teachers…and students. The passage begins, “Jesus saw the people, sat down, and began to teach them.” I know what that means. Over the last two years I have learned well what it means to teach a classroom full of students. Think about it! What do you think it was like there that day? We see Jesus’ words here on the page, but what did the disciples say? What were they thinking? What kind of expression was on their face? I imagine maybe it was a bit like this:

Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain, and gathering them around him, he taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are they that thirst for justice. Blessed are you when you suffer. Be glad and rejoice for your reward is great in heaven.”

But then Peter raised his hand and asked, “Are we supposed to know this? And Andrew, Do I have to write this down? And James “Is this gonna be on the test? Can you picture that? And Philip “How much is this worth? And Bartholomew, “Do we have to hand this in? And John, “the other disciples didn’t have to learn this!” And Matthew, “Can I go to the bathroom?” And then Judas, “What does this even have to do with the real world? And Jesus wept. I’m just kidding, but can you imagine the dynamic? Jesus teaching his students out there?

That last question though is pretty spot on. “What does this have to do with the real world?” That’s a good question! What DOES this have to do with the real world? Because when I look out there or turn on the news, sometimes I don’t see very many blessed people. And when I do it certainly isn’t the people that Jesus says are blessed! In this world, it isn’t the poor who are blessed, it’s the rich! In this world it isn’t the mourning who are blessed, it’s the people too privileged to worry about pain. It isn’t the meek who are blessed, it’s the ones who demand what they want and push their way to the front. Who in this world would ever say you’re blessed if you are persecuted for what you believe? What does this have to do with the real world? But the beatitudes are not about the real world. They are about a new world. An imagined world. An upside world. A world to be hoped for.

How many of you got to see our Presiding Bishop give the sermon at the royal weekend this past weekend? Wasn’t it great? And that’s our presiding bishop! He leads all the Episcopal Churches in the Americas and sits on the board of the Episcopal Schools Association. He was once a school chaplain. And by the way, the Biennial Conference for Episcopal Schools will be in Atlanta in November and Bishop Curry will be preaching, so you might want to look into going to that.

At the royal wedding Bishop Curry started his sermon with a line from Martin Luther King Jr. “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”

We will make of this old world a new world. THAT is what the beatitudes are about. The beatitudes are not a description of the world as it is, but a call to make it what it should be. To make it what God had always intended for it to be. Through love. We are being called to make the world new, to comfort those who mourn, to stand for peace and justice, to show mercy for those least in society, and to hunger and thirst for God’s way. This isn’t about the real world as it is now. It’s about the world as it could be. It’s about the world as it was made to be. The world that Jesus is making it to be, the world that Jesus is asking us to make it be.

That’s why we’re here! That’s why we call ourselves an Episcopal School! We want our students to not only absorb information and facts about math, science, and English, we want them to grow into authentic human beings bent on making the world a better place. Our mission statement is right there on the front of your programs. “Inspiring children to LEARN with passion, SERVE with respect, LIVE with purpose, and LEAD with integrity.” Right after the Beatitudes Jesus continues teaching and says, you are the salt of the earth! But if salt loses it’s saltiness, what good is it? The whole point of salt is to be salty. The whole point of the human life is to love. What a waste if we make our lives all about me.

It took a while. There may have been questions or people asking for clarification. But eventually Jesus’ disciples got it. Eventually Jesus was able to pass that work onto them and they changed the world. They cared for those who were hurting, they shared the gospel around the world, they stood up for what was right and just even when it cost them pain, suffering, and persecution. It took them a while, but they got it, and they passed these words—this mission—down to us. And in each moment they lived into the words of these beatitudes, the real world as it is, got a glimpse of the hoped for world as it can, and should, and will be.

Today as I look at our 8th graders. They’re getting it. I see their gifts, their passions, their wisdom. Jesus said the kingdom of God belongs to young people and I believe it. These are the people right here that will make that old vision of Christ become fresh and new in the world they live in. These are the people that will come alongside the hurting, show mercy for those in need, work towards peace, and be called God’s children.

So eighth grade, as you make this transition into high school, I have two things to share with you. If you notice, the beatitudes are written as a poem. Each line has two parts. The first part is who is blessed, the second is what they are blessed with. Those who mourn are blessed, someone will comfort them. So these are the two things.

First, know that you are blessed. Know that you are loved. When you feel lost and confused, you are loved. When you cry and mourn, you are loved. When you are pushed around, you are loved. When you are put down for standing up for what is right, you are loved. I love you. This community loves you. God loves you. Remember that. There will be times over the next four years when you’ll need it.

Second, it is your job to bless others. You have that power. You have that gift. Don’t wait for someone else to help a person in need. You can do it. You be the one who comforts the mourning. You be the one who shows mercy to someone who doesn’t deserve it. You be the one to stand up when no one else is standing up and demand a better world where God and God’s love reigns. Too often we adults lose sight of God’s call. We get caught up with our own careers, family, bills, ambitions, societal norms, or whatever else tugs at our attention. I’m sorry, but looking around at the world, you can’t always depend on adults to lead the way. But if you take God’s call seriously. If you stand up and be a blessing to the world. You will find even adults inspired at the way you live and we will come alongside of you and share the load.

You are blessed. You are loved. Be the blessing. Be the love.

May you, as you enter high school, and all of you who will later, and all of you who already have, know what it means to be blessed and loved, and to be blessing and loving. Amen.

Pentecost Update

Pentecost update! Things are moving along quickly! This week will be my last as chaplain at SGES, and we plan to move to Austin the last week of July. We should have housing in place shortly, but plan to be in a seminary apartment. We also got word this week that Bear has been accepted into a wonderful Episcopal day school just 2 blocks from where we’ll be living! LauraAnn continues to look for a new job, and we have a couple prospects that look good. As for finances, I’ve recently been awarded a $500 book scholarship, and will be hearing back from some other scholarships within a week or two. St. George’s Church has also generously contributed to our seminary fund. We have loved being part of such a wonderful church. Our last Sunday with the church before moving will be July 8th. I’ll be sharing the reflection on scripture that day.

We are still looking to raise quite a bit of funds for the moving expenses coming up, as well as housing and Clinical Pastoral Education. Would you consider helping? Even $5 would be so special for us. We appreciate how much loving support we receive from all of you.

As always, continue to stay updated on our journeys here and at www.Youcaring.com/derekmichaellarson.

It would also be a great help to us if you considered sharing this post on your own social media page. Thanks!