I had tied my cincture1 using a method that promised symmetry at the risk of the knot loosening over time. This decision proved to be the bane of ordination to the Diaconate. I fought with the cincture knot all throughout the service. Eventually I gave up and wrapped the ends of the cincture around and around the rest of the rope; whenever the knot slipped, I would tug on the ends to tighten it again. It was frustrating, distracting, and absolutely hilarious.
I was ordained to the Sacred Order of Deacons on September 25th, 2021, along with Jacob Davis, one of my best friends going on 13 years. In the pews behind me were my wife, my two kids, my mother, my grandmother and many other friends and members of our church family.
My mom and my grandmother had driven six hours from their home in West Virginia to Louisville, Kentucky, to be there. It’s a trip they made many times over the 13 years I lived there, though it had become much more difficult of late due to my grandmother’s age and my mom’s health. But make it they did; nothing could have stopped them from being there.
Less than a month after my ordination I spent a weekend in Charleston, West Virginia, with our diocesan Bishop, our Canon for Leadership Development, and several other priests and ordinands. We were all excited for both the work God had been doing in West Virginia and the work it seemed like he wanted to do, so we gathered that weekend to consider, discuss, and pray for the possibility of launching a major church planting initiative in the state. For several years I had felt like God might be calling me back to West Virginia. That weekend was the first of many confirmations that led my family and I to move to Morgantown, West Virginia, just eight months later.
My wife and I were excited to move back, excited for helping start a possible new Anglican parish, and excited to be closer to our families.
I grew up in southern West Virginia, where I was raised by my mom and my grandmother. My father abandoned my family after finding out she was pregnant with me. He and my mom were never married. I’ve never met him. My mom was an nurse, an RN, who often worked night shifts requiring her to sleep during the day. When I was old enough, I became a latchkey kid. After school I would get off the bus, let myself into the house, and keep myself busy until someone would get home from work. When mom wasn’t working night shifts, she would get home around dinner time or later.
My father’s abandonment shaped me in ways that I’m still trying to unravel. I came to believe at an early age that it was my fault he left and that I wasn’t worthy of being loved. That belief shaped my relationships for decades. I navigated friendships and significant others with a kind of relational imposter’s syndrome. I believed anyone who truly got to know me would have made the same choice.
Surprisingly, I never worried about anyone in my immediate family leaving—especially my mom. Despite her hectic work schedule, she did everything she could to be present at all the important events in my life and show her love and support for me. If she couldn’t be there, she made sure that I could be, including all the summers I spent traveling to play soccer. I don’t remember missing out on anything, and, more often than not, I don’t remember mom missing out on much either.
My mom was a constant in my life from the day I was born until the day she died.
I moved to Louisville in August of 2007 to attend a Southern Baptist seminary. I wasn’t particularly Southern Baptist at the time, but it seemed the best choice for a number of reasons. I found out quickly, though, that I wasn’t all that great at being Southern Baptist. Beyond feeling like I didn’t really fit in with Southern Baptist culture in general, I also preferred liturgical worship and held a high (for a Baptist) sacramental view of baptism and communion. My relationship to both the denomination and the seminary was tenuous.
Though I didn’t really consider how strange it was at the time, I found a like-minded baptist church only a month or two after moving to Louisville. They were liturgical and did weekly communion. Communion was always introduced with the words of institution, and wine was always offered with optional grape juice. We even practiced intinction with common cups.2
This church was my home and refuge throughout my four-and-a-half years of seminary. It remained as such for seven-and-a-half more years after my graduation. All told I spent twelve years as a member of this church, serving in various capacities as a deacon before eventually being called and installed as a pastor.
This all changed in 2019 when, to the surprise of no one but myself, I became Anglican. To that point in my life, leaving that church was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
The Book of Common Prayer was instrumental in my “conversion” to Anglicanism. Perhaps one day I will write about that journey, but that’s the important part to know for now. The Daily Office3 became a regular part of my devotional life shortly after I started seminary.
I found a strange comfort in praying prayers that were far older and far more tested than I was. I’m self-aware enough to that I’m a “gut” person more often than not. I tend to intuit through my emotions before my logic. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but the time-tested, historically vetted nature of liturgical prayer serves as my foil. (Indeed, the same is true for those who’s situations are reversed.) In praying the Daily Office I find that there truly is “nothing new under the sun”,4 and that the Church already had scripture-saturated, God-glorifying prayers which cover all my concerns, needs, and petitions far better than I could.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m not against extemporaneous prayers. I absolutely believe in the value and necessity of such prayers in the Christian life. Yet, I recognize that even our best extemporaneous prayers suffer from myopia and personal blindspots. Praying through the liturgies and collects5 gets us outside of ourselves and our own personal trappings.
The concept of praying written prayers shouldn’t be all that strange for Christians. The Psalter, a collection of poetic prayers, is the third longest book in all of Holy Scripture by word count. It served as the original “book of common prayer” and the hymnal of God’s people for millennia. Though, to be sure there is a categorical difference between the Psalms and the Book of Common Prayer—the former being inspired scripture. Nonetheless, the latter is a product of the historical Church built by Christ and led by the Holy Spirit. To reject the prayers of history is to engage in a form of what C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield called “chronological snobbery,” missing the obvious benefit of praying prayers that come down to us through the discerning eye of orthodoxy.
Although it is not my goal to defend common prayer in this reflection, I do want to consider one critique often levied against liturgical worship: that it blunts or outright quenches the Holy Spirit. Understandably, this critique often comes mostly from non-sacramental traditions. The whole thrust of sacramental theology is that the Holy Spirit works through tangible, ordinary things. God takes what is common and sets these things apart to be vehicles of his grace. Liturgy becomes suspect when this understanding of sacramental ministry is rejected for the belief that the Holy Spirit primarily works through spontaneity and the extraordinary.
Of course, it is possible for liturgy to become a dead, rote thing as human beings are rarely so creative as when they are twisting the true, good, and beautiful into self-service. Yet, as is often said, the abuse of something does not preclude its proper use. Liturgy’s intent is to be a conduit for the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Nothing that happened in June 2022 came as a surprise. My mom was diagnosed with idiopathic congestive heart failure eight or so years earlier. When she called to tell me the news I didn’t know what CHF was and thought she had miraculously survived a cardiac arrest. I felt some relief when she explained, matter-of-factly as a nurse does, what CHF actually is, but not much. In that moment I began trying to prepare myself for the inevitable. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when the inevitable came, but not being surprised and being prepared are two different things entirely.
Lauren Winner, a convert to the Episcopal Church from Orthodox Judaism, once asked her rabbi why their worship used liturgical prayers. He responded by saying that a day will come when she would not be able to pray in her own strength; on that day the liturgy would pray for her. I found this idea to be captivating, and I would return to it again and again when I found myself struggling to pray. Liturgical prayer has often carried me through many dry and dark seasons, praying for me when I could not. In those moments the liturgy lifts me up above the tide of doubt and confusion and safely deposits me back on the shoreline of faith.
The thing I had dreaded most happened in late June 2022. I felt hopelessly adrift in the sea of grief. By God’s grace the Book of Common Prayer was a lifeboat. In her liturgies and prayers I found unexplainable comfort and experienced God’s presence more than I ever have, before or since.
On June 5th, 2022, my family and I pulled into the parking lot of a hotel in Morgantown, West Virginia, after driving eight hours from Louisville, Kentucky. The very next morning we drove to a lawyer’s office where we closed on our very first house, received our keys, and began to move in.
Everyone was excited for the future. My wife and I were excited to be back in Morgantown, the town where we met while attending college in the early 2000s. Our kids were excited to live in West Virginia and to make new friends. We were all excited for the possibility of helping start a new Anglican church. And my mom, grandmother, mother-in-law, and father-in-law were all excited for us—especially their grandkids—to be a lot closer.
Our first week was a flurry of activity. Bit by bit we unpacked our stuff and began to shape our new house into a home. Settling in, it seemed, would be a long art.
On Tuesday, June 14th, my mom called to say she was in the hospital. She lived next door to my grandmother and was having trouble walking between the two houses without stopping multiple times to catch her breath. Mom’s steady voice stood in contrast to the anxiety welling up within me. She had a cardiac appointment on the 20th, and the hospital was going to keep her for observation until then. I spent the rest of the week trying to rest in her projected confidence.
On Saturday, June 18th, early in the morning, my mom suffered a cardiac arrest brought about by complications from congestive heart failure. Nurses happened in the room when it occurred. They immediately began chest compressions and had her on a ventilator within 30 minutes. It was the best possible scenario for the worst possible scenario, but she was still unresponsive. Optimism was in short supply.
My uncle’s phone call woke me up that morning. Within ten minutes I was dressed, in my car and heading home. About thirty minutes into that drive my other uncle called to tell me to turn around and go back. A bed had opened up in Ruby Memorial Hospital’s Cardiac ICU, and they were going to airlift mom to Morgantown. Forty minutes later I was in the CICU’s waiting room.
My grandma and uncles were several hours away and it took several hours before the hospital could receive my mom and get her ready for any visitors. I opened my Book of Common Prayer as I set in the waiting room, alone, and began to pray through the very same liturgies and collects that have supported the Church in her worst moments. I had no words, no prayers of my own to offer.
In the failure of my own strength I relied on the liturgy to pray for me.
I spent the majority of the next 24–48 hours at the hospital. As mom’s next of kin, the responsibility fell on me to make all the decisions regarding mom’s care and treatment. Of course I was supported by the rest of my family and every one of those decisions were made in concert with their input, but all official decisions had to come through me. I knew difficult decisions would eventually have to be made; I wondered if I was going to be able to make them.
My grandmother, uncles, and I would rotate in and out between the mom’s room and the waiting room. I began to measure my time by the rhythm of going into my mom’s room, holding her hand, telling her I loved her, kissing her forehead, praying some of the collects aloud, spending time with my mom in silence, and then leaving to rejoin my family.
Later that afternoon, we left the hospital and went to my house to get things prepared for my grandmother to stay the night. It was the first time my family were able to see the new house. We let a tour of the house distract us a bit, and then we got things ready for grandma’s stay. My uncles left to go back to their own homes and jobs. Everyone wished they could stay, but life refuses to stop in the midst of our crises. Life is impartial in that way.
At 9:00 PM that night, I went back to the hospital to visit mom one last time for the day. Alone in her room I fell back into my rhythm: I held her hand, told her I loved her, kissed her forehead, and prayed the office of Evening Prayer aloud. At the rubric inviting intercessory prayer, I flipped to the now familiar collects for the sick and dying. I said goodbye, and then I went home to try and sleep.
My rhythm was broken when mom’s attending physician came into the waiting room and asked to speak to my grandmother and I in private. He brought us back to a consultation room and explained that while my mom’s condition had improved, she was beyond their capability for continued care. They recommended sending her to Pittsburgh and a hospital much more equipped, or else her plan of care at Ruby would turn to end-of-life quality and comfort.
Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to give a definite answer, I asked the doctor to give his best guess at mom’s chances for survival if we sent her to Pittsburgh. He answered maybe thirty-percent if she went, and reiterated that it was zero-percent if she stayed. I made the call to send her to Pittsburgh, hopeful but not naive.
One of my uncles drove back to Morgantown to pick up my grandma and take her back home. The two of us made plans to drive up to Pittsburgh sometime in the next few days, and they left. I stayed at the hospital so someone would be there when the helicopter arrived. I went into her room, held her hand, told her I loved her, kissed her head, and prayed the abbreviated Evening Prayer office aloud as they unhooked the machines, placed my mom on a gurney, and wheeled her out to be airlifted to Pittsburgh.
While my mom was an hour and a half away in Pittsburgh, I was home, haunted by the expectation of receiving the phone call. A day or so later, my uncle and I were able to visit my mom as we planned and I immediately fell back into my rhythm: hand, “I love you,” forehead, prayer, silence.
On Friday, June 24th, mid-morning, a surgeon called. Invasive surgery was needed and they couldn’t give a prognosis until they were in surgery and could see how bad things were. For every step forward mom took, her care took three steps back revealing more and more problems. I told them to go ahead with the surgery, but I wasn’t very optimistic. Mom’s body had been through a lot.
That afternoon was a flurry of phone calls between myself, my uncles, and my grandmother. Eventually, the surgeon called back. Then I called my family again. I made the decision. My uncles called the hospital back to get the details. I walked into the house and wept as my wife held me.
We gathered our kids so I could explain that the hospital did their very best and cared for their grandma well, but despite doing their best she was beyond their care. Grandma was going to die soon. I told them that it wasn’t fair to them or her that they wouldn’t have another 20 or 30 years with her, and that it was ok to be sad. I told them that, even though we were sad, she would not be suffering anymore and that she would be happy with Jesus. I told them that she loved them more than they would ever know, and that I and their mother loved them, too.
Then I wept. I prayed Evening Prayer. And I tried to sleep.
On June 25th, my family and I pulled into the parking lot of the hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania after driving an hour and a half. Surrounded by my wife, my uncles, and my grandmother, I went into my mom’s hospital room. I held her hand, told her I loved her, kissed her forehead, and, for my first time ever as an ordained minister in the Anglican Church, I prayed the liturgy for Ministry for the Dying aloud over my mom.
When the time came I stayed in the room because I didn’t want my mom to be alone. I held her hand as one-by-one they turned off the machines that were keeping her alive. I told her I loved her, kissed her forehead, and wept.
The day will come when you will not be able to pray in your own strength; when it does the liturgy will pray for you.
The week that follows the death of a loved one is relentless. In your deepest moment of grief you’re expected to celebrate the very life you’re grieving over, talk to everyone who knew that person and wants to express their condolences, take care of all the open accounts (bills, bank, etc.) that person has, go through all the things they left behind, and go back to work—if you’re lucky enough to have any days to take off for grief at all.
My mom died on June 25th.
On June 28th my wife and I celebrated our 13th anniversary.
On June 29th we held my mom’s wake.
On June 30th I helped officiate my mom’s funeral and burial.
Life refuses to stop in the midst of our crises; it tends to be impartial in that way.
It’s been seven months since my mom died. The grief hasn’t gone away but it is different; not so acute. One of the things that I still mourn all these months later is that mom never got to see our new house in person. She would have loved sitting on the front porch. Since we’re up on a higher elevation, all of downtown Morgantown sprawls out before us. On July 4th, just weeks after mom’s death, we discovered that we are able to watch the town’s fireworks from our porch.
She would have loved to see that.
After mom died I received message after message mentioning how proud she had been of me. These were all nice to read and hear but I already knew. I don’t remember if she actually ever said those exact words or not, but she showed me how proud she was in the way she made every attempt she could at being present in my life.
My mom drove six hours to be there when I was ordained as a deacon in the Anglican church; Years prior, she had made the same trip when I was ordained a pastor in a Baptist church. Nothing could have kept her away from being present at either.
Lord willing, I will be ordained into the Priesthood one day but this time my mom won’t be make it. The distance will be too great for her to make the trip. Her absence is going to be palpable; I’m sure there will be a surge of new waves of grief. Thank God the liturgy will be there to pray for me when they do.
A cincture is a rope belt worn with liturgical vestments. ↩︎
Intinction is the practice of dipping the bread into the wine, thereby consuming both simultaneously. A far-cry from the typical bread with individual plastic communion cups found in most baptistic and non-denominational churches. ↩︎
The Daily Office is the set of liturgies and prayers intended to be prayed at different times during the day. Anglicans tend to condense the seven offices into four: Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. ↩︎
Ecclesiastes 1.9. ↩︎
Collects are the short liturgical prayers. ↩︎