2. Some People (iii) and a dog....
Luke, a dog
Luke was a beautiful Golden Retriever with the deepest, loveliest brown eyes ever. He was Michael's dog before he was Jo-Ann's dog. Michael was Jo-Ann's son and had lost both legs while still a young man. Luke was a trained companion dog who was Mike's legs. But he was more than that. Once, while asleep, an IV in Mike's arm slipped out and he began to bleed. When the blood was pooling on the floor, Luke started barking and pulling at him and woke him up. I don't know how long it would take to bleed to death from an open IV vein, but Mike was not healthy and I think he could have. After Mike stopped the bleeding, he must have washed the blood off Luke's fur and thanked God for such a brown-eyed angel of mercy.
Luke came to church with Mike and when Mike had his final illness, someone with enough sense to break rules that need to be broken let Luke be in Intensive Care with Mike. Mike's missing legs made room for Luke to lay where Mike's legs should have been had life been kinder to him. And he laid there until Mike died. The medical personnel who initially had been horrified by a dog's presence in ICU melted when they looked into Luke's eyes. “I'm just laying here where I'm supposed to be,” he eyes said, “next to my human.”Anyone would have melted. So the nurses and orderlies took turns taking Luke out when he needed to go out. Luke could go to the bathroom on command. Would that we could train young children to do that....
After Mike died, the companion dog people were about to take him back when Jo-Ann, who was most of the time in a wheel-chair herself, convinced them to let her keep him and be a therapy dog. She took him to the hospital where Mike died and to nursing homes around the area. I saw him do it. It came naturally to him. He was never assertive, always patient, always waiting for the human to make the first move. And he was as gentle as a spring breeze, as sweet as the smell of honeysuckle, as healing as magic chicken soup. I can't imagine how many people Luke touched in those years with Jo-Ann. But I know he touched me profoundly.
Jo-Ann always came to the adult forum on Sundays. When she and Luke got to the church library, she let him come and greet me, putting his short leash in his mouth so he could guide himself. He'd come and give me a nuzzle and a lick (though he was also interested in rolling on his back on the rug in the library!) That greeting and lick was always one of the highlights of my week.
When I was in seminary, I had a course in 'creating liturgy'. Since I came into the church via a 'house church', I wanted to replicate that experience for my class. We met in our apartment in Alexandria and Robert Estill, the professor, was the celebrant. My dog Finney was standing next to Bob as we stood around the table. Bob broke the bread I'd baked and passed it around. But before he passed it, he broke a piece off and gave it to our Puli. Finney didn't leave Bob's side until he left for the evening.
I asked him about giving communion to a dog and he told me a story from his first parish church. They used home-baked bread, like we did that night, and since the loaf was always more than the little congregation could consume, Bob would take it to the back door and throw it on the grass for the birds. After a while, the birds would start gathering half way through the Eucharist and sing as they waited to be fed. Bob told me it was a wonderful addition to the music of the little church.
However, one day the bishop visited and was horrified when he saw Bob feed the consecrated loaf to the birds. The bishop forbade him from ever doing it. As someone once described me, Bob was 'reluctantly obedient' and stopped feeding the birds.
“They kept coming for weeks, months,” he told me. “Long after the bread was withheld from them, they kept singing for us. But finally, half-a-year later, they stopped showing up to sing the communion hymn.”
I think that's a metaphor for how the church misses the point of 'being the church'. We let rules and regulations and canon law and dogma come between the sacraments and those who long for them. I've known people that happened to—they were turned away, rejected, shut out by the church and the church lost them, finally.
So, when Luke came to the communion rail with Jo-Ann, I always gave him a wafer or a hunk of bread if we were using home-baked that Sunday. Since I was seldom the only one administering the bread, I kept an eye out if someone else was giving communion on Luke's side of the rail. If they passed him by, I'd rush over with several wafers or an especially big hunk of bread for him. I didn't want him to feel left out. (I always gave him communion with my left hand in case anyone objected to dog mouth. But I drew the line at the cup!)
One seminarian who worked with me was horrified at first. She even took it to her field work support group but most everyone thought it was decent and in good order. I'm sure there were people who found fault with it, but I never asked permission. It was simply right.
After all, Luke was as good a Christian as any dog could be—bringing joy and healing and comfort to so many. He actually was a better 'Christian' in his works of charity than most people. He'd earned his place at the Table.
The kids of the parish adored Luke. They would flock around him at the peace in ways that most dogs would have reacted negatively to. But not Luke—ever humble, ever hospitable, he took whatever the kids dished out with equanimity and generosity and doggy Love. One of the kids was moderately autistic but the parish had made a deal with his parents to treat him like any other kid. I don't think Luke did 'treat him like any other kid'. I think Luke, so used to being around the frail and helpless and confused, treated Twyla with special gentleness and love. Twyla grew better and better, more interactive, more social. I'd give Luke a lot of the credit.
At the General Convention in 2009, a resolution was passed authorizing the Liturgical Committee to prepare services for the death of an animal companion. Several people at St. John's were really excited about that. It spurred the creation of a Book of Animal Remembrances along with a statue of St. Francis that was placed in the collumbarium are in the back of the sanctuary. Dave, one of the guys who helps out around the parish, installed the statue. “Stations of the Cross and now a statue,” he said, “are we going back to Rome?”
“Wait 'til you see the racks of votive candles I've ordered,” I told him.
He laughed and shook his head. “Least we could make some money on that....If people didn't steal it.”
My Grandmother Jones, God bless her soul, used to divide the world into “church people” and those who weren't. She'd always say things like, “those boys I saw you with yesterday, they aren't 'church people' are they?” And she referred to a family down the mountain from where she lived by saying, “they're poor and not too clean, but at least they're 'church people'.”
I tend to divide the world into 'dog people'--those who love dogs—and those who don't. I like to be around 'dog people'. And besides, there is that oddity that 'Dog' is 'God' spelled backward. Luke could make a dog person out of almost anyone. He'd look at them, lower his head and wag his tail a bit. Those eyes, I've told you, make anyone besides a dogmatic hater of dogs just melt.
I heard part of a local PBS radio show the other day that was wrestling with the question: 'do dogs have souls?' The whole concept of eternity is a little vague to me—but if there are no dogs in the Kingdom it won't nearly be as blessed and happy as it's been cracked up to be. I personally am holding out for a heaven where every dog I've ever had as a companion will come frolicking across the streets of gold to great me at the Pearly Gates. “Where've you been?” they'll be barking.
Just before I retired, someone said in the Adult Forum, “What's Luke going to do without Jim?”
Jo-Ann shook her head and frowned. “He'll be looking for him everywhere....”
Good Lord, I thought, I feel bad enough about leaving all the people, how am I supposed to cope with leaving Lukie?
But he didn't have long to look after me. Luke, who'd had trouble standing and moving around for a month of so, was diagnosed as having untreatable cancer. So, a week or so after I left, Luke died in Jo-Ann's arms, as was only right.
(In the past year or so I've known ten or so people, in and out of the parish, who have lost dogs. Somehow, it seems to me, the initial pain we feel when a pet dies is deeper and sharper than when a person we love dies. But it is a cleaner cut because when a beloved animal dies, their aren't mixed emotions on our part. There is no 'unfinished business' with a dog. There is no lingering resentment or words that needed to be said that are left unspoken. The relationship with a dog is so clear, so uncomplicated, so immediate and in the moment that our pain is 'in the moment' as well. But it is so acute. With a person, we almost always the question of how much they really loved us. With a dog such wondering is vain and pointless. Dogs love us as much as they possibly can...and then a little more.)
When Jo-Ann called about Luke, I told her—after we cried together—that she had to ask the Senior Warden if I could come do the service since retired priests are supposed to make themselves scarce from their former parish.
Of course he agreed. He called me to let me know it was alright. “Besides,” he said, “Luke wouldn't want it any other way....” All Senior Wardens should be 'dog people'.
We interred Luke's ashes out in the Close, as near to Mike's resting place as we could estimate. We did that first and then went in the church for hymns, a power point slide show a talented woman had put together about Luke. Then Jo-Ann spoke and made everyone cry. There were about 200 people there, a good number of them brought their dogs and the dogs didn't make a sound during the whole thing.
At the reception people in the parish provided, a man came up to me and introduced himself as the Intensive Care Physician that had made it possible for Luke to be in the room with Michael. I told him I considered him a medical saint. He told me there was no way around it--”I looked into those sweet brown eyes and just melted,” he said.
I told him I knew...I knew....
The strange and wondrous Mrs. Baggs
When I arrived at St. Paul's in New Haven, the search committee had briefed me in great detail about most things. But they hadn't mentioned the pilgrimage I would have to make to visit Mrs. Baggs.
Mrs. Baggs was the last 'rich person' in the parish. Like many city churches, St. Paul's had been founded by the wealthy. Standing on the steps of the church, it was possible to see the property of Trinity Church on the Green, three blocks away. St. Paul's had been founded as a 'chapel of ease' for the wealthy who lived in the Wooster Square area. Back in the day, the Episcopal Church was the church of the privileged and well-born. That was true when St. John's was founded 275 years ago in Waterbury—the names on the plaques around the building were the names of streets and buildings as well. It was like that to a lesser degree at St. Paul's in New Haven. Over the years and the migration out of the city by the well-to-do, the rich folks who built grand edifices to their own distinguished importance either moved away or died off. Mrs. Baggs was the last of her kind.
I was never sure where the Baggs money came from, but it was 'old money' indeed, going back to the early days of the city. Manufacturing of some kind was involved as well as importing and other ways of making lots of money. Gun running to the Tories wouldn't surprise me—but what do I know. But I'm just being bitter about what I was asked to do and that I agreed.
The deal was this—Mrs. Baggs and her two daughters, both unmarried and living together in the house next to the old family home—didn't pledge to the support of the parish even though they were the richest three members ('old money' has a way of spreading out over generations). The two daughters did come to church on occasion, but they were quiet shy and left after receiving communion. But the three of them had a deal with the parish. At the end of the year the Rector would call on Mrs. Baggs and she would write a check for the annual deficit. Not a bad deal if you weren't the one to go, hat in hand, to ask for the money. It was all worked out—I was to slide a piece of paper across to Mrs. Baggs at the end of our visit and she would have her housekeeper bring her a check, make it out for the amount, and then Mrs. Baggs would sign it. Very civilized in some ways.
Over my 30+ years of parish ministry, I have encountered this phenomena over and over again in different guises. People are remarkably generous when they know exactly where their money is going. But very few folks feel comfortable pledging to the parish budget to the extent they are able. A few are comfortable with that and 'do' give to the extent they are able. And those folks usually object to fund raising projects. They are quite clear that if everyone simply gave what they could give, there would be no need for bake sales. And they are right—that's the frustrating thing about dealing with people who truly tithe: they're 'walking the walk' and have no patience with those who merely 'talk the talk'. That tiny minority of folks are dogmatic about pledging and very generous. The generosity of most folks, however, is tied to 'tell me what I'm paying for and I'll pay it' thinking. Because they are generous to a fault themselves, they have no patience with those who tithe, give proportionately. Why is anyone surprised that Stewardship is so difficult?
So I arranged my visit to Mrs. Baggs—much against my better judgment—with her housekeeper and showed up at the appointed time. She welcomed me into a rather modest home, considering the Baggs' fortune. Usually, it seems to me in my limited understanding, that 'old money' is seldom ostentatious. It is the newly rich who lust after square footage and 'obviously' expensive things. I'm sure the furniture I passed, led by Mrs. Grant, the middle-aged, very patient, black housekeeper, was mostly antique and quite valuable, but it didn't scream out “Money!”
Mrs. Baggs was waiting on a little room that was most likely an office at some point in time. There were two easy chairs, a fireplace not burning, a table between the chairs and not much else in the room besides a large portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The painting was in oil and I wondered if it were from Lincoln's time. She was a tall woman for someone her age, with piercing blue eyes, thick white hair pulled back and dressed in black slacks and a white blouse and inexplicable Keds red tennis shoes.
Doris, Mrs. Baggs housekeeper, brought us Ritz crackers with slices of Velveta cheese and some extremely dry, extremely cheap sherry. I knew the sherry was cheap because the price tag hadn't been removed but it took a sip to tell me it was really bad. I wondered if one of the richest people in the city didn't want to waste the good stuff on the Rector. Doris must have read my mind.
“This is Mrs. Baggs favorite snack,” she said, “she insists on it for guests.”
Mrs. Baggs asked about my education and when she found out I had an MTS from Harvard, she pursed her face.
“All the Baggs men were Yale men,” she said, “but I suppose Harvard isn't bad if you can't get into Yale.” She made no comment at all about West Virginia University or Virginia Seminary. Which I guess actually was a comment of sorts.
Then she asked about a couple of people at the church. One she called a gossip and the other an asshole. I almost gagged on my bad sherry when she said 'asshole' but decided people who have lived to great ages deserve to speak their mind. She told me of her admiration of my predecessor, who had been elected bishop. I imagined he was more at ease asking for money than I was and nodded in agreement with her praise of him.
The weather, which was mild for late November came up and she asked me if I knew her daughters. I told her I did and commented that they didn't stay around long enough on Sundays to have a real conversation with.
“They're not much for talking,” she said, “Beth and Ruth are very interior people.”
I nodded some more, wondering when the slide the piece of paper with a figure on it across the table. To pass the time I commented on the painting of Lincoln.
“You must admire President Lincoln,” I said.
She went on a while about Lincoln's attributes and accomplishments. Then she leaned forward and, in a whisper, said, “They killed him you know....”
I was nodding. I did remember that President Lincoln has been assassinated.
“It was John Wil....” I began.
She shook her head vigorously and touched my hand. “No, no,” she said, “that Booth rumor was a cover-up. It was the Gerry's who killed him.” She sat back, smiling and looking pleased.
“The Ger...Gerry's....You mean the German's killed him?” I asked, astonished.
She nodded. “A dozen of them,” she said, “all came running into the box seat and filled him with holes.”
I was nodding like a madman, trying to keep up.
She motioned for me to lean toward her and whispered in my ear, “I was there, you know....”
“When...when the Germans killed Lincoln? You were there?”
She smiled again. She had a lovely, old-lady smile,
“Mr. Lincoln, himself, invited me to the theater that night,” she told me. “That Mary Todd wasn't pleased. If you ask me, she was in on it.”
I took a deep breath and a large slug of bad sherry. “Mrs. Lincoln was part of the plot to kill her husband?”
Mrs. Baggs nodded and then said, “she was a German herself, you know.”
About that time, Doris reappeared.
“We don't want to tire Mrs. Baggs too much,” she said softly, “I think you should leave.”
My head still spinning from the German plot to kill Lincoln, I started to rise. Doris cleared her throat loudly.
“I think you have something I must see,” she said.
She waited until I understood and found the piece of paper with a figure on it in my pocket. Doris took it from me and said, “just say your goodbyes.”
I shook hands with Mrs. Baggs and kissed her cheek. Her skin was surprising soft for someone in their 80's. Doris came back with a check she had filled out and a pen.
“Put your name here, darlin',” she said to Mrs. Baggs, pointing to where to sign.
On the way out, Doris gave me the check. It was for several thousand dollars more than my note had said. She saw my reaction and said, “don't worry, the girls know about this and approve.”
“Mrs. Baggs...,” I started and then didn't know what to say.
“I was listening from the hallway,” Doris said, “and when you got started on Lincoln, I knew it was time I came in.”
“The Lincoln thing....” I began.
She smiled and helped me on with my winter coat. “No one understands it. The girls certainly don't.” She laughed softly, “once Mrs. Baggs told me she was there when the President made me free. That's how she said it: 'Doris, I was there when he signed the proclamation that made you free'. I swear I think she thinks she was....”
“So what will...,” I started.
“Happen to her?” Doris was faster than me. “Oh, until her body goes, I'll be here. The girls like me and I actually love Mrs. Baggs. She's a load of laughter.”
At the door she touched my arm. “Come back and see her please. But not like this, have someone call me with the total each year. Just come and visit and have some bad wine with her.”
“And talk about Lincoln?” I asked.
She laughed, “most likely,” she said and shut the door behind me.
I was astonished by the strange and wondrous Mrs. Baggs, by Doris calling two women at least in their 50's 'the girls', and by Doris herself. Mrs. Baggs was in good hands.
After I left St. Paul's, there was a need for a lot of repair to the building. The Baggs family was, I was told, extremely generous.
But by then, I knew Doris wrote the checks.
Remitha may be the most remarkable parishioner I've ever served...and one of a handful of the most remarkable people ever in my life.
She had a story (doesn't everyone) that made her remarkable enough. But how she chose to live out her life, post story, was astonishing.
Physically, she was unimposing. Five foot six or so and thin with a coffee Au let skin coloring. Her hair was turning the least bit gray when I came to St. James in Charleston but I don't know how old she was. Age wasn't something you tended to note about Remitha. She was most likely in her sixties back then, but there would have been no way to tell. She had more energy that any two people and moved rapidly.
It was her movement that gave her past away. She moved with a grace and economy of motion uncommon and rare. She moved like a dancer—which is what she was. Remitha had danced with Cab Calloway during the last years of the Harlem Renaissance. She knew all the notables of that remarkable artistic time and place. The only thing she ever did to let on that she could have been famous is refer to the figures of the Renaissance by first name. When Remitha said “Duke”, she didn't mean 'Snider'.
But when her parents were having health problems, Remitha left New York and came back to Institute, West Virginia to watch out for them. She had a married sister but since Remitha was single, it was her duty to care for parents. Both her parents were associated some way or another with West Virginia State College. She stayed with them until they both died and then, too old to take up her career again, stayed in Institute as a teacher. She had just retired when I arrived. To keep herself busy, she took on the care of other elderly folks. There were dozens of them that she looked out for—doing shopping, taking them to the doctors, bringing them food, just spending time.
Remitha could be irritable from time to time, though not nearly as much as someone who spent many hours a week with needy and demanding elders had ever right to be. Oh, she was never anything but patient and kind to the people she ministered to (and it was a real 'ministry') but she would come by my office every week or so, flop down on a chair gracefully (Remitha could actually make a 'flop' look 'graceful'!) and give me a litany of the woes of 'her folks'. But as soon as she got started complaining, she would begin to see the humor of the old people's eccentricities and we'd end up almost whooping in laughter. After a while, she sigh and smile, 'well thanks for listening' she would say and head back out to do dear, kind things for her folks.
“They drive me crazy,” she would say from time to time, “but being crazy keeps me going....”
Due to some strange demographic blip, the largest single group at St. James was teenage girls—only three teens who were boys, but over a dozen teenage girls. This was long before the curse of smart phones fell upon the land, but most of those girls could find something inane to do anyway. Remitha thought them lazy and spoiled.
“Look at them,” she said one day, “do-less, junk-food addicts and turning fleshy. Someone should do something.”
I remained a deacon for nearly a year, doing deacon's masses (which are like sacramental take-out blessed by a priest at another church) and with the help of Father Dodge. But my ordination had been scheduled—the first ordination at St. James in the church's 90+ year history. It was a Saturday and the next day I'd celebrate my first real Eucharist. Remitha came by one day a few months before my ordination and caught me at the church.
“What do you think about liturgical dance?” she asked me.
“I like it,” I said, “if it's done well.”
“Oh, it will be well done,” she told me, “you can trust me on that....”
Before I could ask what she meant, she was headed toward the door. “I've got Miss Bessie's two sisters in the car. I've got to get back before they get into mischief.”
Before I knew it, all those teenage girls were showing up after school at the church and Remitha was teaching them to dance. Some of them were reluctant, but Remitha had gone to their parents first. It didn't take much convincing to have the parents ordering the girls to do whatever Remitha told them to do. And Remitha could still dance—she'd had ballet for years before Harlem. The girl could really dance!
So, the St. James dancers came into being. She had them sewing their own costumes—simple, full colorful skirts to wear below black leotard tops with a scarf matching each skirt for their heads. They danced in bare feet. Some of them were naturals and some tried Remitha's patience. But they all learned to dance. My first mass as a priest was their debut. They used the whole church—all three aisles and the front. They performed four numbers all to Duke Ellington's “Sacred Concert”. Remitha danced with them—some times doing things they couldn't yet do, but often just as one of the ensemble. Her grave and graceful demeanor gave the girls more confidence and they ended up being better than even Remitha had imagined. It was most definitely 'done well'.
At the reception following the first Dance Eucharist at St. James, Remitha received the praise and deflected it to the girls. They had grown to love her though she was very strict with them and demanding of their bodies. They worked hard and when anything went wrong in rehearsals Remitha would first look sternly at them and then burst into her infectious laughter. Sometimes at the end of a rehearsal they were be exhausted, strewn around the church on their backs laughing with joy and amazement at themselves.
After that first service, Remitha gathered the girls in my office for a moment. I was with them. She smiled broadly at them. “The Duke would have been proud of you,” is all she said. They knew that was the highest of praise.
They went on for several years, dancing at St. James to a widening repertoire of music: Benstein's “Mass”, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and most lovely of all, old Negro Spirituals. Their reputation spread and they would often dance at other churches or at Diocesan Conventions or, because it was part of Remitha's passion, nursing homes.
“When do we get to see you again?” I asked her one day before a trip to Huntington to dance at the largest parish in the diocese.
“Lord these girls run me ragged,” she said, shaking her head. “I sometimes wonder if it's worth it....”
I started to tell her that of course it was worth it when she went on, “but these girls ARE worth it....”
Remitha wasn't satisfied simply to do her 'good work'--she drug me into it at every possible moment. I sometimes believed she double booked trips for her folks on purpose so I'd have to drive people places and drive them home. She also was very active in working with the retarded and crippled. (I know neither term is politically correct today but it was the 1970's and that's what we called the 'mentally and physically challenged' in those days.) She would drag me off to help her do exercises at group homes and special schools. It was impossible for her to imagine that the 'challenged' population couldn't do more if you only asked them to. So we would do calisthenics and run races and do silly dances with folks all over the county. Her network was seemingly limitless and everyone who knew her fell under her spell. But then, it's hard not to love someone who treats you like you are more capable and smarter than you think you are and is constantly reminding you how proud she is of you.
It was the same for me, but with an ironic bite to it.
Once after church she told me, “You certainly are a great preacher.” I walked around coffee hour about a foot off the ground. Just before she went home she came over and whispered, “...for a white man.” I could hear her laughing all the way out the front door.
Something she taught me that every priest needs to learn is simply how to be with people different from you or someway impaired or old or dying. That's a lesson for us all, but especially for a priest. It seems to me that most of my long ministry has been spent with a large number of those folks. Since I was always in urban settings, Remitha's teaching was acutely important. And I love her for it.
Another teaching was that the world is, in the end, a tad bizarre and usually inscrutable. Weird, odd and strange things happen all the time. Remitha taught me that bemusement and pondering were two tools of Life's trade. She'd shake her head often and say, “God works in mischievous ways....”
A few years after leaving Charleston, I was in West Virginia for a while, visiting relatives. My friend John had called me when Remitha went into the nursing home. She had developed rapidly progressing Alzheimer's Disease. It took her quickly, almost before she knew what was happening. She went in rapid succession from not remembering where she put her car keys (as we all do sometimes) to finding them and wondering what on earth they were, those oddly shaped metal things. I drove a couple of hours to visit her. It was a homey place, not the institution I expected. The Director had known Remitha before she got ill and treated her with the respect Remitha deserved. I went into her room. She had fallen and was tranquilized but awake. The first thing I noticed was the ironic, mischievous, good humored spark that had always been in her eyes had gone out. She seemed so frightened about something—perhaps the fear of staring into the world and seeing nothing that made sense. When I touched her, she jumped a little and turned her head away.
The Director was still with me. “She does that with everyone,” she told me, softening the blow of the rejection I felt so acutely.
I sat with Remitha for 45 minutes and helped feed her some apple sauce which she ate reluctantly and staring at me without recognition.
I talked to her about our times together but those times seemed so long ago when I saw her like that. I couldn't stay any longer because it hurt too much.
I stopped at the Director's office on the way out.
“Did she say anything?” she asked me. I told her no and she shook her head sadly, “she's pretty much quit talking. And Lord she was a talker in her day....”
I admitted Remitha could really talk and started to apologize for not staying longer.
That same sad head shake. “Don't apologize,” the Director said, “it's just too hard, I know it is....”
Remitha's sister let me know when Remitha died. She told me how proud Remitha had been of me and what a good priest she always said I was. I thanked her for calling and was sad. But I realized the woman I loved had died a year or two before her wondrous, expansive heart stopped beating.
I've 'supervised' (so to speak) 30 people preparing for ordination in the Episcopal Church. All of them, except the first and last one, are now priests. Dana (who became a well-known novelist), the first seminarian I worked with, was ordained a Deacon in the church, but then, as a protest of sorts because of her fierce commitment to social justice, refused to become a priest. The last one, Frank, is still in the process and will be ordained in a year or so, I pray. He will be a wonderful priest, though he has run into some difficulty—a side effect of the ordination process that badly needs fixing. But don't let me get started on that....
Twenty-eight priests, a deacon and a priest in waiting, have worked with me over the years. I've gotten to preach at a half-dozen ordinations and have followed the lives of many of them to this day. Thinking about that is similar to thinking about the hundreds of funerals, weddings and baptisms I've been a part of in my 35 years as a priest. It is something that I have only started to ponder since retiring some nine months ago at 63. What a privilege and honor it has been to touch so many people in some way during my being a priest. And, in the case of the seminarians, having touched second-hand all the people they have touched in their ordained ministry. It takes my breath away and humbles me mightily.
I've always sought to be a 'boss' in a counter-cultural way. I've tried to surround myself with people smarter and more talented than I am and then give them their head to do what they do. The only agreement I've had, at least for the last 25 years, with people who work 'for' me, is this: They can have the applause for their accomplishments and I will take any grief for when things go wrong. The buck has always stopped with me. I am constitutionally and genetically designed to be able to accept criticism gracefully and, in many cases, use it to make things better. I have somehow developed the ability to 'roll with the punches' and not take them personally. I wish I could take credit for that stand, but the truth is, it is just the way I am. (One caveat, this ability does not extend to my immediate family—like most everyone, I imagine, my daughter or son or wife can cut me to the quick with a critical word.) And, it seems to me at any rate, that's the way it should be. The person in charge should take the blunt of any attack and let their employees 'shine' when things go well. And, it also appears to me, that strategy results in lots more 'shining' than 'whining'. Just me talkin....
The metaphor I've used over the years with people who, technically, at any rate, “work for me” is that of Crabbing Buddies.
Here's how that goes: over 35 years ago, I learned how to catch blue crab in little inlets of North Carolina. There is simply no way to explain how to do it in words, it is fraught with too many quirks and nooks an crannies. The only way to learn to crab is to put your feet in the water and learn from someone who knows how to do it. Crabbing involves a lot of variables.
In the first place, there is the bait. I recommend chicken backs, either ones you get from the butcher or carve out of a chicken yourself. The first thing you do is tie some twine around the chicken back and lay it out on a banister in the sun for a day or two. You need to get it really rotting. You tie it with twine first because you won't want to touch it with your fingers after the morbidity sets in. When the chicken is ripe, you slide a sinker down the twine and tie it off about three inches above the stinky chicken. Do two or more backs at a time, especially if you're being someone's crabbing buddy. Everyone needs bait.
You need a net on a pole about four feet long and a cooler or two full of ice covering at least two six packs of beer—I'd recommend three six packs. You can always run to the convenience store to get more. It depends on how many people are expecting a meal from your crabbing. Six crabs barely feed a person. Eight each is better. And you get to drink a beer only when you catch a crab. I recommend cans rather than bottles since you don't want to be bothered with a bottle opener. Then put the bait on top of the ice and either walk or drive to an inlet. You need to get there as the tide it turning. The crabs float with the tide and you want them moving. I've always thought that the tide turning to high is better than the tide turning to low. But the point is, have the tide turning.
You need to wear old sneakers since you'll never want to wear them again. You need sun block at the maximum strength allowed by law and a hat that shields your face from the sun. Also, the brim of the hat lets you look into the water to seek the crabs. Sun glasses too, the ones that cut glare so you can actually peer into the water about a foot.
You throw the rotten chicken out as far as your line allows...four feet of line would be enough in most cases. Then you hold the twine and try to distinguish between the pull of the tide and the bite of a crab. There is no way to know the difference without doing it for an hour or so and feeling foolish pulling in the twine when it is just water moving the bait. Eventually, through trial and error, you begin to get the sense in your fingers of what is tide and what is crab.
When you have that sense and feel a crab feeding, you have to start pulling in, slowly enough to let the creature keep eating and fast enough to get it into water shallow enough to net it. It is more poetry than prose, more intuition than knowledge, more 'touch' than 'knowing'. It takes a while to get your finger tips to react in a consistent and accurate way to the feel of a crab feeding. But once you get it, you know it always. Much like the 'balance' of riding a bicycle. Once you find it, you have it. You never forget how to ride a bike or how to know it is a crab on your line.
Patience is then required. You have to keep the tension, which isn't difficult since crabs are ferocious feeders. But if you pull in too fast or lean too far over the water so the crab's stilted eyes see your shadow, then the crab will back away. If that happens, you wait. They are greedy creatures and might just come back to the food if you are patient enough.
There is a whole other set of skills needed to net the crab you've tempted in far enough to see. They move backwards, mostly, so you have to come from far behind them because once the net hits the water they are in 'escape mode' and coming straight down will give you a net full of rotten chicken. Again, it is a matter of 'touch' and instinct, not knowledge and knowing. So, the only way to learn to do this—to crab successfully, is to be calf deep in water with someone who already knows how. And you have to be willing to be sun-burned, in spite of all your precautions, and have your ankles bitten by baby shrimp—yes, Virginia, shrimp can bite—and have three things...patience, patience and patience...and three skills...intuition, balance and 'touch'. That and only that will fill the coolers with crab as the beer is pulled from beneath the ice (always bring a bag for the cans, be environmentally responsible, after all). And, when you put a new blue crab into the cooler and dig down for a beer, remember this, people smarter and more skilled than you have been pinched by a crab claw. Just part of the learning....
So that is how I supervised all those wondrous people. I invited them into the water with me. I showed them, initially, how to do certain things and then I invited them to throw the chicken out, feel for the crab bite, learn to pull it in—not too fast, not to slow—take the net and see if they could do it. Always, I asked them to bring emotional sun block, intellectual sun-glasses and some old clothes. And I also told them what was best for shrimp bites—witchhazel and then baking powder.
Lots of work, sunburn, sweat and too many beers. But the feast is worth it. Nothing like boiled blue crab, poured out on the Charlotte Observer with corn from a road side stand, boiled shrimp from the same stand, lots of butter and beer or really cold white wine. Nothing like that at all.
Parish ministry can be that fulfilling, that wonderful that tasty. It really can be, if you're willing to ruin your sneakers and tend to the shrimp bites—metaphorical, of course. I never imagined I was “supervising” these remarkable young people. I was just trying to keep up. It's like the story of a man riding his horse through a town as fast as he could. “Those are my soldiers up ahead,” he said. “I am their leader and must catch up.”
Some of my relationships remain over time. I got a call years ago when Bern and I owned a house on Oak Island, NC. The gentleman introduced himself as Casper Higgenbottom, or something as unlikely. He told me he was a Fire Marshall serving Brunswick County. He asked if I were the owner of a house on Dolphin Lane. I told him I was, beginning to feel a bit uneasy.
“Well, Mr. Bradley, the damage can be repaired,” he said.
“Damage?” I said, my heart sinking, “what damage?”
“A gas line exploded near your house and scorched the who east wall,” he told me, “but there is good news....”
“What could be good about that?” I asked, sorrowing.
“Well the burn marks look like a profile of our blessed Lord Jesus,” he said, “and several people are interested in buying the property from you or you could use it as a tourist attraction. Lots of Christians in this area....”
After a long pause, I said, “who is this really?”
It was K., one of the first seminarians that worked with me in New Haven. He was in a church in North Carolina and was going to rent a house during July on Topsail Island and wondered if we'd be down that month. We saw K. and his family that summer and a couple of summers afterward until he got a job in another diocese.
B. was a young man from the upper Mid-West who worked with me and K. It is always exciting to have more than one seminarian around. It creates a usually friendly competition and they have someone to complain about me with! Plus, many hands make light work and I have found over the years that seminarians accomplish a great deal of parish ministry in their 10-12 hours a week during the academic year. Besides, one of the joys of having seminarians around is that they see with 'fresh eyes' and usually have bold and innovative theologies. It always kept me on my toes to engage seminarians in conversation about 'what they would do' if they were me and about the 'theological context' of practically anything. Many priests, it seems to me, get bogged down in the 'doing' of ministry and don't attend to staying reflective theologically. That's impossible with seminarians around.
B. was a talented man. More serious and less skeptical than K. They balanced each other well and did a great deal of good work at St. Paul's. St. Paul's was known as, perhaps, 'the most liberal parish in the diocese'. I'm not sure it was, but it was a haven for political and theological liberals. The parish itself did good outreach but, except for one of two activists, most of the dedicated liberals who came there wanted rest from their labors. They were doing the progressive work of God in their lives in many different settings. St. Paul's was a haven for them. A place to take a deep breath and be cared for just as they cared for those they served as teachers, social workers, labor union leaders, medical practitioners and workers in the vineyard of the world's pain and injustice. I've always fretted over the “gas station” image of a parish church—a place to get 'filled up' for the week ahead, for real life. But it is clear to me, looking back, that people who live in 'the real world' need refreshment and nurturing. All churches should seek to do that. Some parishes need to make it a primary ministry.
Anyway, back to B. I preached at his wedding down in Pennsylvania. His bride's parish was in a tony, upper-class suburban community. Her family's Rector did the service and I did the sermon. He was one of what I've always called 'catalog priests'--the kind if you saw their picture flipping through a catalog you would say, “oh, let's get that one!” Tall and intellectual and kind and a charming kind of shy—he was (he was, I thought, talking with him and B. in the back yard of the Rectory because the bride's limo had been delayed by an accident on the Interstate) destined for bigger things. So call me a minor prophet—the priest was later Bishop of Chicago and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church!
So B. was ordained—I was one of his presentors—and he took a job in Connecticut so I would see him at clergy gatherings. Once, a couple of years later, I called him up to get his help on some issue or another—probably having to do with gay folks in some way—and there was a long pause after I told him what I wanted.
“B,” I said. “Are you there?”
“Jim,” he responded, “I'm just not as liberal as you are on these issues....”
I came to find out over the next few years that B and I were on opposite sides of most issues that came before the church. It was truly a revelation to me. For one thing, I must not have listened very well to him in our many conversations. He never hid his opinions, so far as I could remember, but my 'blind side' is that I always think of myself as the 'norm'...from which there is no deviation. This had bitten me many times over the years, thinking whoever I'm talking with must be in agreement with my obviously correct and passionately held opinions. Over and again I've been shown the untruth in my belief, but I continue to make the assumption that everyone supports what I support. Someone once told me when I gave them my “I'm the Norm” explanation that it was curiously naïve of me and not a little charming. Charming or not, I always feel like an idiot. B's final lesson to me was that you don't have to agree with someone to love them and to work with them. That's a lesson I wish I could learn more thoroughly. It's also a lesson that Orthodox Christians and Progressive Christians, Jews and Muslims and Christians, even Democrats and Republicans could learn, much to the benefit of all.
W was a seminarian for two years at St. John's. I got in trouble with the bishop (not the same one) during her ordination sermon. At the very beginning, instead of the usual “In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” I said, “In the Name of Yahweh, Jesus and Sophia”. I think I may have told this story earlier, but I'm not sure I said that it was a woman, I am told, who objected and told the bishop, who inhibited me from saying such a thing.
W was a slightly more mature woman, not straight from college to seminary. She was from the spiritual tradition of the Society of Friends when she got bit by the Liturgy bug and became an Episcopalian. I'm not sure we Anglicans understand how powerful the liturgical practice can be to people of a certain makeup. I just read a review the other day of a book called The Accidental Anglican which, apparently, chronicles the journey of a fundamentalist Christian to the Episcopal Church. It was the Liturgy that got him, though our theology still is problematic. The message to all us Episcopalians is clear--”it's the Liturgy, stupid!”
Anyhow, W, who was a candidate from Connecticut, a member of the Cathedral congregation in Hartford, was having problems getting through the ordination process. (Don't get me started on that...I've warned you....) She was a good preacher, a superb pastor, an accomplished teacher and liturgist, plus she had a 'support group' who loved her and were devoted to her. Most seminarians didn't trouble much with their support group—which they selected and led—but W was deeply committed to learning all she could from lay folks (much better teachers in priest-craft than priests or seminary professors, by the way) and made the most of her group. They even had a name for themselves—'The W Pack'--and taught her much more than I ever could have about how to be a priest.
The complaint of the committee blocking her ordination was that she didn't have a full-blown “Anglican Spirituality”, which, as far as I can remember, had something to do with her admitting she didn't say Morning and Evening Prayer from the Prayer Book each day. Well, that ticked me off no end. Against W's wishes, I demanded a meeting with the bishop and the committee. It was a painful time. They were somehow, it seems to me, suspicious of a Quaker/Episcopalian. Hell, I'm a Pilgrim Holiness/Methodist/ Episcopalian. What could be more suspect that that. What frustrated me was that I knew her best of all and knew what a priest she would be and how badly the church needed priests like her and no one would listen to me.
(I've taken an informal poll of priests I've known, asking them if they were not an Episcopalian, what would they be. Over half have said 'a Quaker”. The two forms of piety seem to complete each other—the deep silence and lovely liturgy seem meant for each other. And you couldn't find a more sane way of making decisions. When the whole gay inclusion question came into the forefront, the Quakers, as I understand it, adjourned their national convention and spent the year in discernment and prayer. At the end of the year they simply accepted GLBT folks as fully part of the Society. Episcopalians have been fighting and splitting over the question for well over a decade. I can't imagine why the Episcopal Church shouldn't be more than delighted to have Friends come to join us, bringing their spirituality with them.)
So, in spite of my intervention (or, perhaps, because of it} her ordination was delayed for a year. Alas and alack. It seemed to snap something in her. I don't know, I just may be imagining that, but she hasn't had the success in the church I thought she would and which she richly deserved. The Process somehow 'broke' her. Literally, since she had no job for the year she had to wait for ordination...and, more profoundly, emotionally and spiritually in some way. It was one of the many cases I've seen where the church as “Institution” overruled the church as “Community” and did damage.
But she soldiers on to this day. I hear from her from time to time and she is still committed to her ministry, her priesthood, as much 'in spite of' the church as 'for it'. God bless her. God bless them all. They deserve it. Really. Good people, trust me on this—good people.
Little M was a gift to me. She grew up and will spend her priesthood in churches that are suburban, mostly affluent and traditional. And, when she was in seminary, a commuter student after her children were almost grown, she made a defining choice to come to St. John's, a funky, profoundly diverse, urban parish. She needed to experience it, that's what she told me when I interviewed her. Such a place would not be her fate or her passion, but she truly believed she should experience it and learn from it. And she did, just as I learned from her.
M is almost terminally 'perky', still is in her role as a Rector of a suburban parish outside the See-city of Hartford. She is 'feisty', I would say. A priest friend of her asked me, early on in M's time at St. John's, “how's it going with M?”
Being inappropriate in most ways, I mistakenly said, “we'll crack her open yet...”
Well, her friend told her what I said and so much of the year she spend with us 'in the City', M was trying to resist being 'cracked open'. I didn't really mean it in a negative way. I merely meant, and should have said, “we'll give her an experience she won't forget.”
She was another of the seminarians I presented for ordination in a Fairfield County parish that reeked of money and influence. The kind of place I feel a little too hill-billy and tongue-tied to be in comfortably. For her ordination, I gave her, as is my tradition, something that was mine. I gave her a large print of Christ/Sophia. It depicts a beautiful, dusky skinned woman, wrapped in a red garment with long black hair and a nose ring, holding a wooden carving of the Earth Goddess. It is an edgy kind of icon, full of paradox and challenges. St. Paul called Jesus “the Wisdom of God”, or, in Greek, “the Sophia of God.” Sophia has been associated over the centuries, with both the second and third persons of the Trinity. So, that's what I gave her, 'little M', the proper suburban woman, always well groomed and dressed by Talbots.
A few years later, I called her because I wanted to borrow the print for a retreat I was leading. She told me to come down and get it. I suspected she would have to go get it in her attic, but when I arrived, the picture was hanging prominently on the wall of her office in this well-heeled parish. I was surprised and told her so.
“I put it here so people will ask about it,” she told me. “And they do. Many find it troubling, but that's not a bad thing. Being 'troubled' teaches us something.”
She smiled at my look of surprise.
“Then I tell them about St. John's and the life and ministry of a place so different from this,” she told me. “That too teaches us something.”
Just as B taught me you don't have to agree about issues to be loving and kind and accepting of each other, 'little M' taught me what I already knew and often forgot, which made it a doubly special teaching.
'Folks are just folks' in the end.
We live in different cultures, different contexts, but in the end, 'folks are just folks' and we theologically trained people should know that, really know it, appreciate it and ponder it and figure out how to make it work.
'Little M', I believe, has figured all that out. She spends her life and ministry in a context and culture I've never known, and in that space, she creates the Truth that 'folks are just folks' for the folks she ministers to.
God bless her, like all the others.
E was the first person I 'supervised'. She was a seminarian from West Virginia who, at the end of her second year of study, was required to spend the summer working somewhere in West Virginia. Since she wanted to minister 'on the margins', coming to an African-American parish in an overwhelmingly white diocese made sense. She also wanted to be near Charleston both because her spiritual mentor—the Rector of St. John's, the big church downtown—was there but also because of her passionately felt need to do advocacy work. E is the only person I ever worked with that made me feel 'conservative'! Her theology was expansive, liberationist and activist. She went far further into social action than I ever did, though many would consider me a model of 'the activist priest' from Paul Simon's Me and Julio, down by the School Yard. E's particular zeal was for saving the mountains from the greed of the coal industry.
There had always been strip mines, though the massive scale of mountain top removal of today would have never been imagined. E grew up, as I did, in McDowell County, a part of the world sitting on the largest bituminous coal deposits in the U.S.
(The Rector of St. John's, amazed by E's brilliance, devotion and passion, once said to me, “Jim, can you believe someone like E actually comes from McDowell County?” It was one of those 'what good can come from Nazareth?' statements people who didn't grow up in Appalachia often made. I wanted to shake him and say, “who do you think we are down there, some lesser species of humankind?” Instead, I nodded. “Amazing,” I replied. There's really no point trying to convince people that places like McDowell County are really like all the other rural places around the country. Coal miners are seen as somehow constitutionally inferior—witness the way companies like Massey Energy kill them for their sport...or rather, their profits....)
E and I grew up quite close to each other, in fact. Our parents knew each other. My father had worked in the mines before WWII and E's father was a mine boss of some kind. We both had seen with our own eyes the wanton destruction of some of the most beautiful places on earth. People who find out I'm from West Virginia will often tell me about driving through it on the way to someplace else. And they always comment on the beauty—and the emptiness—of the state. (West Virginia is the size of all of New England, excluding Maine, and has less than 1.5 million citizens. It is a very large, mostly empty place.) And, it is jarringly beautiful. It was a remarkable and humbling privilege to grow up surrounded by the mountains that reached down to the core of life of the planet and up to the vast expanses above. There is something holy about mountains (not a surprise to almost all Faiths since holy places are often on mountain tops).
Strip mining, as it was called in my youth, and what is called 'surface mining' today, abuses, ignores, desecrates all that is subsumed it the Holiness of Mountains. Now, as an old retired guy, I finally resonate with E's outrage and passion and anger. I finally get what drove her, motivated her and consumed her, body and soul.
Here was E's Achilles's heal when I knew her—she was in mortal battle with not only the 'only' real industry of West Virginia but with many of the leaders of the Diocese. I remember being at a Diocesan Convention Banquet and seeing E outside, picketing the event because several coal owners would be there. Her mentor and I talked to her and tried to convince her to come in and eat with the sinners, but she was adamant and disappointed at us for going inside.
“Do you think we should stay outside with her?” I remember asking K, her mentor.
“Let's see what's on the menu,” he said, “then we'll decide.”
E and K were both to the left of me which meant they were on the left wing so far over they might just fall off. But E's purity was not ours. We ate with sinners as she stood outside and protested. “How far to go?” is always the question for those who seek social justice. I think perhaps K and I were missing E's point. Perhaps there is no such thing as 'going too far' in issues of justice. I wrestle with that Angel and ponder the possibility that E tried to teach me what I did not learn.
When there was a movement to keep her from being ordained to the priesthood, K and I pulled in whatever chips we had and got her approved. And E refused the ritual! It mattered not what her two Defenders risked and bargained away in her behalf. She had a shining, diamond hard and rainbow pure 'cause'. She would not be ordained into a church that harbored and supported those who destroyed mountains. After all these years, I'm not sure, but she might have been right. Or, at least Righteous, which is what we are all called to be.
(“Righteousness”, by the way, is not a measure of moral purity in any sense. Abraham was 'reckoned righteous' by God, not by virtue of his 'virtue', but because he entered into a 'relationship' with God. Being Righteous is to be in a 'right relationship' with God. It is a term of 'relationship' not behavior. So many Christians have that so, so wrong. When you are 'in relationship' with someone, even God, then you know each others quirks and faults and brokenness, yet you Love each other. Am I making any sense here? I worship a God of 'relationship', not a God of Law and Judgment. I pray you do as well. And I really believe, with the perspective of decades, that E had a 'relationship' with the God who created the mountains that I did not have and will never have., She was “righteous' in that sense instead of the way we saw her and judged her—a radical with an agenda. E held the hand of the Creator and knew the Wonder of God's ways. I really believe that. Righteousness never leads to good endings, but knowing you will be abandoned by even your closest friends while you hold the hand of the Almighty...well, I know why she stayed away from that banquet that night and refused ordination to the priesthood when it was an open offer to her. Sometimes you meet people who walk backwards and speak gibberish and yet are, in the end, Righteous. Sometimes that happens. It just does. Notice that and ponder it.)
E, if recently found out, now participates in the church in and around Charleston. She's also become a author of historic novels, a couple of which I've read. She even teaches at West Virginia State. It's comforting to know she's there, involved I'm sure in making life unpleasant for the coal companies—especially after the horrifying accident of last year. The problem is, as noble as people like E are, the ones they seek to advocate for—the miners and their families—depend on the coal companies for their livelihood. It's a difficult thing to speak up for those who don't want to be spoken up for, fearing loss of their jobs. But if anyone is up to that kind of quandry, it is E....God bless her....
That's enough for now. I may return to the seminarians later and tell you a bit more about some of them and the gifts they gave me. Just reflecting on them, remembering them and pondering all that they taught me has brought me that complex and ironic emotion that merges together pride, gratefulness and humility. Not a bad emotion to hang around with for a while.