Monday, June 29, 2015

Chapter 8

8. THE SWAN LADY AND ST. RAGE
(This chapter came from some notes and thoughts I put down on paper about the events of May 15, 2007. I know that because I actually dated the notes—quite organized for me! Funny thing is that there are two completely different endings. I'm not sure why I did that or which I wrote first. But I've had no success trying to put them together, so I'll simply put the second one after the first one and you can take your pick....)

I went to see my urologist today down in Greenwich. I can never get there on time since whenever I drive toward New York City I become a traffic magnet. It doesn’t matter which way I go—and there are really only two ways: I-95 and the Merritt Parkway—I’m like the fine lady from Bambury Cross except “I will have traffic wherever I go….” The trip down was uneventful, or, more precisely, eventful only in ‘where’ the traffic jams were; however, the way back I saw the Swan Lady and St. Rage.
The Swan Lady was just passed Exit 9 on I-95. She had parked on the side of the road and was walking near the so-called slow lane against traffic. The ‘slow lane’ at that point (my magnetism having been worn low by a complete Urological exam, ‘nuf said) was going about 55 or 60 and I thought the lady must be crazy, walking so slowly, so near to speeding cars, carrying a brown blanket. Then I saw why, as traffic was slowing down for her. She was walking slowly toward a swan that was standing beside of the north lanes of Interstate 95, seeming to consider crossing over. I was two lanes over and thought about pulling over to see if I could help but couldn’t get across. So I sped up to Exit 10, got off and circled back to Exit 9. By the time I’d done all that—only a few minutes—both the Swan and her savior (I pray) were gone.
I thought about it all the way home. The swan looked confused rather than frightened, like he didn’t know what had happened to the water he’d been in before he leaped a barrier and ended up in the break-down lane. Since there are swans in Cheshire and in Hamden, I was fully aware of their reputation as being aggressive and touchy. And they are huge creatures, when you think about how much bigger they are than other birds. And I believe they need a good run to get themselves air bourn so there was no way he had enough runway to cross the Interstate in flight. I thought about Watership Downs and how the rabbits would sit beside the newly constructed roadway and ponder what it all meant. And I thought about the time I hit a wild turkey that flew in front of my car on the Merritt when the kids were young and what a holy mess that was how we all screamed and then cried most the way home. I even thought of Sandra Milchin, the only child of the only Doctor in the town where I grew up. I hadn’t thought of her for decades. She had been killed at 18 when she swerved her car on a mountain road to avoid hitting a dog and hit a tree instead. Dr. Milchin never got over it and lived to be very old, still practicing into his 80’s, continuing to save lives until he died in a consulting room while stitching up a lacerated knee. How many lives he saved, I thought, and he had no way to save the one that mattered most.
Then there was the time I was with my cousin Marlin, driving to Grand maw Jones’ house when the traffic suddenly stopped. I was 8, maybe 9, and Marlin was maybe Sandra Belcher’s age. He got out and stood on the hood of his car to see if he could figure out why traffic had stopped where there was mostly no traffic at all . He shouted something, reached over to where I was sitting and took a hunting knife out of the glove compartment. “Stay here,” he said, running down the side of the road passed the stopped cars. Of course I didn’t and got there just in time to see the deer someone had hit and terribly wounded have its throat slit by my cousin, Marlin. I was close enough when it happened to be sprayed by arterial deer blood and see the look of thanksgiving in the suffering animal’s eyes as he looked up at Marlin. (OK, I know that is a remarkably unjustified anthropomorphism—to see ‘thankfulness’ in the eye of a young buck deer—but I was there and that’s what I saw.)
Where I grew up, surrounded by mountains and two lane roads through ‘nowhere’, the people who taught driver’s education always made a big deal about not trying to miss things that run out in the road in front of you, not even to slow down. And they always told the story of Sandra Milchin and the sadness in her father’s eyes all of his days. But it doesn’t do much good. I think it is almost an automatic instinct of human beings to try to avoid hitting creatures who run in front of their cars. Dogs and cats are obviously animals most everyone would swerve for, given how much they are a part of our lives and how we know someone would be waiting for them to come home as darkness fell. But most everyone, I believe, tries to avoid hitting squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks and raccoons and possums as well. OK, may not possums since they are such nasty and scary creatures.
The woman I’m married to was a Swan Lady once. She was on a Merritt Parkway entrance ramp and saw a swan casually strolling up the side of the ramp as if it was going to hitch-hike to Hartford. She stopped and got out, over the screams of my son—“Don’t get out! You’re going to get killed!” And since it was an entrance ramp and not a busy eight-lane highway like where the Swan Lady today was walking slowly, holding her blanket, Bern was able to get the people coming on behind her to stop—especially since she’d parked right in the middle of the ramp! Any way, the swan that day was saved to do something equally suicidal another time. I can only hope the Swan Lady of I-95 was as successful. When I got back, as I said, she was gone and so was the swan. Since I didn’t see swan parts strewn all over the road, I can will imagine the best.
(Here’s how she was moving—softly, one foot carefully in front of the other—like a dancer during the slow movement of the ballet. Or, perhaps more descriptively, since she was holding the blanket in two hands in front of her, she was moving like a matador approaching the wounded bull, standing still, looking dazed. Though that’s not a good metaphor since the matador is using the cape to hide his sword and she was, obviously, simply wanting to use it to shoo the dazed-looking bird back over the barrier to the water on the other side. She was thin and small—not unlike a dancer—and about 60 with closely cropped black and gray hair. The look on her face as I saw it passing by, was a look of total concentration, great patience and a restrained sense of urgency. She was, in the brief moments I saw her, beautiful.)

That instinct of humans to try to avoid hitting creatures in the road is one of the prime pieces of evidence I would give for the basic, primal, marrow-deep ‘goodness’ of our species should I be the defense attorney before the Throne of God. Though one could argue that this particular instinct is born, not of compassion but of the instinct to avoid any kind of collision, I maintain that it demonstrates (as so few of our actions do) that we have some sense of unity with and responsibility for the rest of creation. I know that when I avoid rear-ending another car or the driver behind me stops before hitting me, my reaction is a feeling of relief that I am safe. But when I look in the rear view mirror and see the squirrel I did everything short of running into someone’s yard to avoid hitting is sitting on the sidewalk looking nonplussed, my feeling is the relief of knowing I did no damage, I did not kill another creature.
Though our basic goodness is proven to my satisfaction, it is obvious from the amount of road kill everywhere that our actions do not always live up to our intentions. Just like everything else in life, I suspect. Road kill affects me deeply. A dead dog or cat almost stops my heart, but a raccoon gives me pause. I’ve often thought that I would, if I were very rich, endow some organization that would drive little hybrid vehicles painted bright yellow with a black band of mourning across the hood. Everyone would know this was the “Road-Kill Patrol”, a group utterly dedicated to giving a decent final disposition to the creatures along side the highway who died for our sins of speeding along in lethal weapons. Burial or cremation should be the fate of those creatures, not to lay in the sun and bloat and be constantly run over again until there is not much left of them than the proverbial greasy spot in the road.
I think about Road-Kill a lot, probably because there is always so much of it around. I even wrote a poem about it once.
THE SKUNK AND THE KITTY

On my way out, up the hill to where I go,
I passed a patch of road
where a skunk and a black cat
were both dead—road kill.

My car window was open
on an uncharacteristically warm
January morning—foggy and strange.

So I carried the skunk smell with me
all the way to where I was going.
Something about the smell of skunk,
millennia in development,
whether as evolution or God’s plan:
skunks have an odor to peal paint,
leave you hyperventilating
and just a little nauseous—
more than a little if smelled before breakfast.

I though all day, where I was,
about those two creatures—
dead as doornails and splayed on the road.
The cat was someone’s friend and companion.
The skunk was a marvel of defense mechanism—
a mother/father of small defense mechanisms.
Both were deserving of a better fate
than to swell and burst and decay on a state highway.
I prayed for them at noon prayers—
silently, of course, lest I seem to animistic in my faith.
The skunk and the kitty—both black,
both dead,
both nameless to me
(though the cat surely had one,
and who can say about skunks?)
so I couldn’t pray for them by name.

Going back down the hill,
from where I’d been to where I live,
I noticed the cat was gone—
claimed, perhaps by some human who loved her,
given a proper burial, mourned, missed.
Appropriate funereal rites, as bifit her.

The skunk was there still—
torn to pieces by the tires
of SUV’s, Buicks, foreign cars, UPS trucks.

His odor was less on the way back,
but, God bless him, still potent.
And I wondered—heretic and pagan
that I truly am—
whether he died for our smells….


jgb—1/30/09

***

When I was almost home, still pondering the impenetrable mysteries of road-kill, of human goodness, of the Swan Lady’s courage and beauty, all that stuff—I passed a laundry with a sign, about 20 feet high with those letter’s you wedge on it like letters on your holder playing Scrabble. There was a ‘special’ on sweaters, which struck me as odd since it was 80 degrees or so. Then I thought maybe people get sweaters cleaned in May and put them in plastic boxes under beds to sleep until the first chill spell in October. I never think that far ahead and there’s no room under the futon I sleep on for boxes—plastic or otherwise. I am destined by my lack of forethought and sleeping furniture to pay full price for cleaning my sweaters next fall when it seems I need them and they are 6 months dirty.
But below that was what caused me much consternation. In big, red, capital letters at the bottom of the sign, it said ST RAGE. I drove for 10 miles trying to remember if I’d ever heard of St. Rage and wondering why on earth that was on the sign. I often see signs in front of businesses with some vaguely religious aphorism on them. Further south, down in Dixie, businesses don’t hesitate to put “JESUS SAVES!” on signs out front. But this is New England, the land of closely guarded and mostly hidden faith: and St. Rage, for goodness sake. Who could that be?
When I got home I was about to ‘Google’ St. Rage when I noticed on the internet that Jerry Falwell, of all people, had died. I’m proud that I didn’t say “good riddance”, but I must admit I have more feelings about the deaths of road kill than immediately gripped me from reading about Jerry’s demise. And it was just while I was examining my conscience and beginning to feel like a terrible person (doesn’t each man’s death diminish me, after all?) when what should jump into my head but the letter ‘O’ that completed the true message of St. Rage. I whispered a little prayer for the soul of my brother Jerry and decided to start writing.
(First Ending)
The church should be like the Swan Lady, like the Road Kill Patrol, not like St. Rage.
The church should walk with great and graceful care on the edge of every highway, guarding those in danger. It is, after all, the edges and margins of life where the church is needed—and you can never imagine all the places that might be. But anywhere that the relentless speed and impatience and lack of compassion of the culture creates road-kill. The church must not so much seek to “fix” or “change” all that as to simply be with the marginalized, the forgotten, the misbegotten, the despised, the lost, the lonely, the abused and rejected and left out. Since there is not much the post-Christendom church can do or change, we are enabled to find an identity and authenticity that does not involve the support of the culture and approval of conventional wisdom. It is a chance—this dance of the church…like the slow, calm, fearless dance of the Swan Lady—that the church neglects at our own peril. There is a ‘relevancy’ that does not include sitting in the seats of power and driving the society. There is an integrity not of ‘doing’ or ‘changing’ or ‘having’: the integrity of ‘being’, simply being, with the ones Jesus called “the least of these.” While the culture races on—intent on doing and having—the church must dance the ‘dance of being’ on the verge, in the breakdown lane with the frightened and bewildered swans of our society, willing to risk our lives with them, just to be where we are called to be and to dance….
My Uncle Russell, my father’s older brother, was surely one of the worst drivers who ever lived. He had the terrifying habit of driving by straddling the center line of the torturously twisted two lane mountain roads. Once, after a near miss when riding with him in whatever Ford pick-up he owned at the time, I asked him why he didn’t experiment with driving in the right lane. He looked at me, taking his ubiquitous unfiltered Camel out of his mouth, not even pretending to be watching the road or driving with both hands. “If you’re in the middle,” he said, laughing, “you can dodge things both ways.” What he forgot was being in the middle also meant you could get hit in either direction.
The church, it seems to me, has a remarkable opportunity and rare possibility at this moment in time, to choose the breakdown lane rather than the middle of the road. The Main Line churches have chosen “Hobson’s choice” since the demise of Christendom. While Evangelicals have emerged from the under-class of the American religious culture to stake out a clear and unambiguous position and actually skew the political landscape of the US, we Episcopalians have rolled along in Uncle Russell’s old pick-up down the middle of the road, seeking to be ‘all things to all people’ and dodge things in both directions. The Episcopal church tends to be a pastel blue in the Blue states and pink in the Red states—a tertum quid—neither fish nor fowl. Never was that more obvious to me as on the day the House of Bishops voted at the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis to ‘consent’ to the election of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire—the first open and partnered gay bishop. Since only the diocesan bishops have a vote in those instances, there were only 109 or so votes to be counted. And I know from my own experience and from what other bishops told me that he got at least 17-20 fewer votes than he would have gotten. Bishops who would have voted in the roll call in favor of Gene ‘counted the votes’ and knew he could win without them taking a stand. One of them, an old friend of mine was fetchingly honest when I asked him why he voted ‘no’. “I have to go home, Jim,” he told me. He is a bishop in a very Red state.
So over a dozen bishops of the church chose not to ‘do the right thing’ because they had to drive in the middle of the road back home. That puts a whole new meaning on discretion being the better part of valor—and not a good meaning either. And lots of those who ‘did the right thing’ had some ‘splaining to do and put some remarkable spin on their votes. Since I was one of the clerical Deputies to the GC2003, I attended the series of forums held back home after the GC. All of them had at least a couple of hundred people in attendance. The same kind of forums, held prior to General Convention, attracted between 12 and 40 people. What astonished me was how enraged the most vocal of those people were. They quoted Paul and Leviticus endlessly, reading the passages to the bishops and deputies (in the King James Version most often) as if we were unaware of those parts of the Bible. They were red-faced and shaking with anger and indignation. At one point in one of the worst and most contentious forum, I turned to the lay deputy sitting beside me and said, “When did we tell these people they should read the Bible? And where the fuck did they get the King James Version?” In spite of how much my language offended him, the broke into laughter that he tried to stifle by sucking on his bottle of spring water.
Here’s the thing (although I applaud him for taking the heat) my bishop, just at the moment of the sea-change in the life of the Episcopal Church, tried to swerve into the middle of the road and eventually got smashed up from both directions. He carefully explained the canonical requirements for an election of a bishop and found the New Hampshire vote stayed respectfully within those church laws. He further reminded people of the assumed autonomy of dioceses and that only once in the history of the Episcopal Church had the bishops ‘denied consent’ to an election, that occurring in the chaos following the deep divisions of the Civil War. So, he told people calmly, he had little choice in approving the election of a “faggot' as bishop. (People actually used ‘that f-word’ in the forums!)
What I was praying for—even though the Swan Lady metaphor wasn’t part of my thinking back then—was for the bishop to park in the breakdown lane of what was an especially dangerous high way. I wanted him to get out of his car, take a brown blanket from his trunk, and, risking his own life, be somebody willing to walk against traffic. I wanted him to move with grace and beauty toward that confounded swan on the verge. I wanted him to say, “I voted for Gene Robinson because I truly believe it was the right thing to do. I voted for him, not because his election was ‘valid’, but because gay and lesbian folk are, honest to God, as loved by the Almighty as anyone in this room and they should be involved in this church on all levels. The way you read the Bible isn’t the way I read it. So, get over yourselves. They’re queer, they’re here, get used to it! Next question….”
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I believe he probably thinks he tried to say that. But he was trying so hard to be the reconciler, to ‘build bridges’ and keep ‘everyone at the table’—which I know he sees as his job—that there was not ‘clarity’ about where he truly was in the whole matter. For the Episcopal Church to be like the Swan Lady, we have to BE somewhere and stand there and take the grief that will come. People will leave parishes if we, as a church, choose to ‘be’ with those in the breakdown lane. Parishes will leave dioceses. There will even be some dioceses that will leave the Episcopal Church. And the Anglican Communion will most likely throw us out with the trash. But, it seems to me, we have to become more irrelevant in the eyes of the culture before we find an ontological relevance…a relevance of ‘being’, not doing or having. I, for one (just me talkin’) believe all those losses—lamentable, painful and mourned as they should be—are most likely necessary before the Episcopal Church can lay claim to a new relevance and a new role in the world.
(Second Ending)
The church should be like the Swan Lady, like the Road Kill Patrol, not like St. Rage.
The church should walk with great and graceful care on the edge of every highway, guarding those in danger. It is, after all, the edges and margins of life where the church is needed—and you can never imagine all the places that might be. Years ago a parishioner said to me, “What we need is a ministry to the apparently well.” That has haunted me all these years. What she was saying is that even though she was bright enough and together enough to ‘appear’ whole and well, there was within her a stunned and frightened swan standing beside 8 lanes of speeding traffic, wondering how to cross. The church rewards obvious dysfunction with some minimal attention. Those in the hospital get visited regularly, communion gets delivered, hands get laid upon their heads. But once they’re discharged and home—apparently well—the church moves on to the next ‘critical situation’. The church is good in emergency, for the most part. I know my way around ER’s with great efficiency. I know how to sit by the death bed and bring a ‘non-anxious presence’ to those I’m sitting with and, hopefully, to the dying. I know how to walk with people through the maze of details after a death and to provide a funeral that is full of grace and comfort. But after that, when life begins anew, I don’t follow through very well unless the ‘apparent recovery’ of those months of mourning breaks out into something critical again. I am adroit at preparing couples for marriage and parents for baptism and the liturgies we do at St. John’s for those events are so good that we get ‘follow up’ business from people, not members of the church, who came to them. “Why do you want to get married here? Why do you want your child baptized here?” Those two questions, the first I ask when someone outside the parish comes for sacraments, are, more often than not, answered by: “Well, I came to a wedding/baptism at your church and….” I am extremely hospitable to those requests and more often than not prove my adroitness at preparation and grace as a liturgist once more. But do I have a system to follow up afterwards—even in the weakest of ways…a note, a call, even a form letter a month or two after the ritual? Not really. They have joined the ranks of the ‘apparently whole and well’ and the church moves on looking for new adventures, fresh meat. And who is more like a frightened swan than the newly married and those with babies that they have no idea how to care for?
If this time off to think and reflect and write does nothing else, it is going to prompt me to get people together to talk about how the church can be a swan lady for even the apparently well. When I went to get my blood test after my Urological exam, the young woman who found me in her computer said, excitedly, “You’re an Episcopal priest!” Computers know everything, it seems. Her daughter, whose picture she showed me, was baptized in an Episcopal church down there in Fairfield County. She launched into a description of abused perpetuated on her family by the Roman Catholic Church having to do with sacraments. I went along with the flow and told her horror stories from my experience. We had a fine old time bashing the Roman church for not treating people well—which is on the same level as bashing a skunk for stinking or road-kill for being dead. But when I asked her if she went to church regularly, she told me she didn’t and with a far-away look in her eyes said, “when we showed up a few weeks after the baptism, it was like they didn’t know who we were.” Of course not, they had been dosed with a sacrament and were now ‘apparently well’ and able to fend for themselves.
Now that I think of it, churches like the Episcopal Church do by night what the Romans aren’t ashamed to do in full light. They ignore people who come seeking the sacraments without having ‘proved’ themselves worthy. We welcome the sacrament-seekers and ignore them after they’ve been ‘done’. Everyone, no matter how ‘apparently well’ has a confused and terrified swan within them. The church needs to be more like the Swan Lady and be with them before they walk into traffic. We’re much better as the Road Kill Patrol. We’ll pick up the remains after some other church has run them over and nurse them back into an illusion of support and of being loved by the church. But that’s not enough, not by half. We give them the first thing they came after then leave them by the side of the road again, not realizing the first thing was simply the ‘first thing’ they were seeking and we need to keep them close so they’ll feel free to ask when the “second thing” and the third occurs to them. The only question—the question that requires real focus and commitment and true compassion—is this: How to do that?

Maybe that’s where St. Rage needs to come in…St. Rage is the patron saint of ‘following through’. I’ve been blessed the last few years by being surrounded by other staff people who are gifted in following through and dedicated to details. I’ve always been a ‘forest’ kind of guy rather than a ‘tree’ man. I can make the profound public statement about the social issue of the day—but I don’t follow through and ‘do’ anything about it. I can speak eloquently about the ‘goals’ of this or that project, yet I stop there and don’t provide the structure to get to the goals.
I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but I can hazard a guess that in my two decades at St. John’s I was a part of 500 funerals, 200 weddings and probably more baptisms than funerals. The number of people I’ve touched in those 1200 or so liturgies—the people intimately involved and the collateral folks as well—is staggering and embarrassing to me. And, if I might be the opposite of embarrassed for a moment, I’ve done a surpassingly good job in all those events. It’s what I’m good at. What I’m lacking is how to follow up and stay in touch and complete the deal—be a priest to people after the fact of the liturgy. Maybe others do it well, but I’m just guessing that this is an area—because of our ‘critical care’ model for the church—that isn’t done well all that often. And I’m not talking about ‘results’—about so many people in church we’d have to add a service or two though the building seats 600 comfortable or so much money in the pledges and plate that we’d have to have an armored car come pick it up each Monday. What I’m talking about is ‘what the church should do’ to BE the church. We must figure out how to minister with power and meaning to the ‘apparently well’. Until we do that with the same impeccability that we do liturgy, we are falling short of our role in people’s lives.
The Lord be with you. (And also with you.) Let us pray: St. Rage, hear our prayer and rage out against the church when we seek only the public and heroic ministries and betray the needs of those internal swans within all of us. Guide us to be Swan Ladies to the obvious and to the hidden. Lead us by the dangerous paths beside the roadway. Give us the blanket of love and hospitality and in all things let us live on the margins and meet people there. Amen.


(Hand written addendum to second ending)
There is another way of imagining St. Rage that should not be a model for the church today. St. Rage has done enough to damage us already. I won’t even bother to list even a few of the atrocities of the church against the children of God from the distant past—they are well rehearsed and mostly ignored by Christians today. I want to start more recently, like with the rise of the late Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. When I was reading the news report of his death on America On Line there was one of those annoying polls to take about what you would remember most about Rev. Falwell. (I just went back to AOL to try to make sure I had the categories and results right, I discovered that the story—though still there after some looking—no longer had the poll as part of it. It has been over 24 hours, after all—yesterday’s news!) But since I always take those polls just to see how out of step I might be with the AOL nation, I remember with some accuracy, the questions and the results. The poll asked you to click on the following choices of your memory of Jerry:
0 Controversial stands
0 Building a congregation
0 Political influence
0 other

“Other” was my choice since I hate and despise what Jerry Falwell did and stood for. He initially claimed that the events of 9/11 were the judgment of God on America for homosexuality and feminism and something else I can’t remember—bunny rabbits, perhaps. He both built and stoked the fire of hatred for gay and lesbian people that has pervaded this nation for almost 20 years. He supported any military action in the Middle East because he wanted Armageddon to happen so Jesus would come again. He laid landmines under most of the progressive social agenda. He did not encourage killing doctors who preformed abortions, but he never said it was wrong either. He started the ‘creationist’ nonsense that was accepted, in the first debate among Republican presidential candidates by at least three—maybe five—of them as the God’s truth. And he founded a ‘university’ based on the opinions of his church, which must have made challenging young minds to think about things they’ve never imagined could be true (what a college education should, most likely do) pretty improbable.
The interesting thing was the result of the AOL poll. As nearly as I can remember it was this:
Other—47 %
Controversial stands—35%
Political influence—13%
Building a congregation—5%

I may have gotten the percentages a bit wrong—but I know that was the order of the results. And I’m betting, not even knowing who in the hell votes on these polls, that most of the people who voted for “other” had something scathing to say about the good pastor. And that the fact that he built a congregation of a dozen friends and family meeting in a body repair shop, or somewhere, into a world-wide religious institution involving millions of donors and hundred-of-millions of donations, plus a TV channel and a University didn’t strike many people as what to remember him for is, in an ironic way, informing.
Jerry Falwell was a devotee of St. Rage. He set people against each other in dozens of ways. He cowered Republican politicians into kneeling at his altar and kissing his ring. He brought millions to the voting booths by appealing to their fear and anger rather than their better angels. He created an atmosphere of religiosity that many who never sent him a penny got caught up in—we’re right, those other people are wrong, fuck ‘em. But, by God (some ‘god’, certainly not the one I love and who loves me), Jerry took a stand and dared anyone to counter it. And he ‘did’ things and ‘changed’ things and ‘had’ things in abundance. Which is the golden ring that Episcopalians and other Main Line churches so covet.
But we are not the devotees of St. Rage—at least, not most of us. Archbishop Akinola and Bishop Minns and those who foam with hatred and self-righteousness wear his medallion.
But not us, not if we are able to comprehend that our role is to be the Swan Lady for the dispossessed and the Road Kill Patrol for those ground under foot by our culture and society. Not us, if we are courageous enough to be ‘irrelevant’ and embrace the possibilities not being relevant contains. Not us, if we can only find it within us and invite God to sustain us in practicing a ministry of “being” rather than doing/changing/having. Not us, if we would rather dance on the margins than ride down the middle of the road, avoiding some things in either direction but smashed into irrelevancy both ways.
Nobody much cares which choice we make—except God and the least of these, God’s family….

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Washing Dishes

(I was about to throw away an old notebook and found this poem in it. I have no idea when I wrote it.)

WASHING DISHES

I start the dishwasher
during the Yankees game
after she goes to bed.

It is stainless steel
and smarter than me--
the dishwasher, I mean.
She is flesh and blood
and also smarter than me.
What a quandary--
a woman
and a kitchen appliance
both smarter than me.

I empty it after the game (win or lose),
late in the night sometimes,
especially when they play
on the West Coast.

Glasses in the cubbard,
as well as bowls and plates
and cooking dishes
(all in different cubbards)
>like base runners.

Cups on the hangers.
Implements, forks, spoons,
knives,
all where they belong.
>like relief pitchers.

Wiped counters and
water turned off,
it's almost over.
>like the ninth inning.

Hang up the rags and
squeeze out the sponge...
now I can sleep,
having done what
I do
to make myself
(so useless in so many ways)
useful
for her.

>Home run. Walk off.

jgb

Chapter 7--"Tend the fire...."

7. Two Priests (Jack and Snork)

Every priest needs a mentor. Every priest needs a guide through the labyrinth that is 'being a priest' and 'doing priestcraft'.
Every denomination—even a small, mostly irrelevant one like the Episcopal Church—has two identities, is bipolar and schizophrenic. There is the troublesome, canon or doctrine bound, low-level toxin of the 'Institution'. All institutions, is seems to me, are ultimately and fatally flawed. But the 'good twin' is the 'Community' that is the church—IS the church in the most vital and enlivening and astonishing way imaginable.
Every priest needs to learn about 'the Institution' and develop strategies to deal with it...or strategies on how Not to deal with it. The Institutional Church is politics writ large because of the church's habit of claiming not to be political! It's politics in the end and a priest must develop a political sense that allows him/her to navigate the treacherous waters and cross the long, unrelenting desert of the Institutional Church without being maimed, impaired or killed. The politics of the church must be acknowledged and dealt with so the priest might be able to be present fully to the Community—the very harbinger of the Kingdom.
My choice has been—mostly learned from Snork but reaffirmed decades later by Jack—to simply be who I am and do what I do but always cover my back in some ingratiating way. That sounds all to manipulative as I think about it, but it is a decision of 'manipulating' the Institution rather than being manipulated by the Institution. The Institution itself is very seductive. It is possible to convince yourself that you are being a 'team player' and 'going with the flow' of the Institution and that the Institution is basically benign. Just as the Church protests too much about not being political, you seldom find anyone in the hierarchy who will fess up to the manipulative nature of the beast. 'Going with the flow', it seems to me, puts one in high risk of being caught in the powerful undercurrent of the Institution's inertia. Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest. And bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. The Institutional Church, remarkably, is both nailed down tight and careening along at a break-neck speed. Failure to recognize that either gets you stuck or run over.
Three examples come to mind in this overly long aside. All three of the examples have to do with bishops. Bishops have a choice to make that will shape their whole episcopate: either 'become' the Institution or acknowledge its power and move around it.
When I was a baby priest, I called my bishop (a good man) to ask his permission to do something I knew to be coloring outside the lines. He stopped me before I could frame the question.
“Jim, is this about something you really feel compelled to do?” he asked.
“Yes, Bishop,” I said.
“Then I'm giving you some advice. Don't ask me beforehand.” He paused to let me get the wisdom of that. “Then apologize like hell and claim ignorance when I have to slap your hand. It won't get you out of having your hand slapped, but I'll still love you for the outrageous nature of your apology.”
That was a man who had a strategy for dealing with the Institutional Inertia of the Church.
One of the best bishops I ever met was as unsuited for the job as a person could be. He was a parish priest through and through who had been a last minute compromise candidate in a contentious and divisive election. To his amazement he was elected.
He told me once about a particularly thorny question that came early in his bishopric. It confounded him so much he went to the office of the Diocesan Archdeacon, a man who had served several bishops, to ask for his advice.
“What can I do about this?” he asked the politically savvy Archdeacon.
Then the man smiled slyly at him and said, “Anything you damn well please. That's why we call you 'Bishop'.”
So, until he retired, that's what that Bishop did in most every occasion. His strategy became 'using' the Inertia of the Institution to forward his best intentions.
Both those men were what I call the 'extinct bishops' of a much different generation. They came to understand their power rather than 'becoming' their office. Giants and Ogres once graced the seats in the House of Bishops. The Giants (like my two friends) did much good. The Ogres
did much damage. I think the Institutional Church recognized and deplored the damage of the Ogres so much that they turned the office into a CEO rather than the Servant of the servants of God. They prevented much damage in doing so, but they also made it harder and harder for bishops—and by extention, priests—to do remarkable kinds of good.
Finally, a friend of mine was elected bishop. He was someone I supported and worked for (trying to ingratiate myself to the Powers that BE). We had agreed about most issues, including what was wrong with the 'corporate model' of the Church. We both, I knew, recognized that the Church's grace and healing power came from the Community Model.
So, we were having lunch—on me (ingratiate when you can, I say)--when I asked him when he planned to do something that B.C. (Before Consecration) we had been allies about. There was a long pause. Then he took a deep breathe and said, “Things look different from this side of the desk, Jim....”
I took a bite of salad and sip of wine to let him explain all that more clearly, in small words I might understand. When he didn't, I said, impolitely and without political ac-cumin, “There's no f*ck*ng desk here, bishop. We're two friends in a restaurant.”
The rest of the meal did not go well.
Jack and Snork would have never said that to a bishop. It's not just that 'they knew better', its simply that they would have known no good would come of it. Jack and Snork taught me to avoid 'no good will come of it' situations adroitly. I was not the best of students. No fault could be found with the teachers at all.
Both Jack and Snork swam below the surface of the rough seas of the Institutional Church. They had internal radar detectors that warned them of the church's speed traps. Both did mostly what they wanted to do, with great grace and no need for acknowledgment, but gave wide berth to potential pitfalls. They were both, in their own ways, more radical and nontraditional than I ever dreamed of being—and I dreamed, beloved, oh I dreamed!--yet they pulled it off without drawing attention to themselves, covertly, burrowing beneath, going under or over but never straight through. One bishop I served with called me his 'young Turk'. But he always knew where I was and what I was up to. I was on his screen and seldom confounded him. Jack and Snork were 'Turks' beyond compare, but they were secret Turks, undercover Turks, wise old Turks, worn smooth by life. The older I got, the more I became like them. At least that is my hope and my prayer.

The first time I petitioned to be elected a Deputy to the church's General Convention, I came in ninth of the nine candidates. I was sitting alone, nursing my wounds in the break after the election results had been announced, when Jack came by and said, “I'm surprised you got that many votes.” He smiled his crooked smile and sat next to me. “You should have come in tenth out of nine....”
He was chuckling at my disappointment. I decided to give him the silent treatment but though Jack was never very talkative, he kept on talking in spite of my ignoring him.
“Look down there on the floor,” he said. We were in the balcony. I dutifully looked. “You see all the people who got elected clerical deputies?”
In fact I could—two men and two women. He was tweaking my curiosity just a bit.
“What do they all have in common?” Jack asked.
Well, not much. Two were my age, one younger, one older. One was bald, one was blond, one had brown hair, two were heavy, two skinny, all white, of course. All parish priests...what else? Then it hit me, they all had on dark pinstriped suits—one of the women's suit had a skirt—and they all had on big, shiny clerical collars and pressed black shirts.
I looked at him. He was still chuckling. I had on sandals, jeans, an open collar shirt and a tan jacket none the better for wear.
I finally smiled.
“You'll never 'fit in' the way the church expects,” he said, growing solemn and wise. “But you could find ways to 'fit in' without compromising your strange sense of integrity. You have two approaches to the Institution of the Church: either you 'ignore', but not benignly, you aggressively ignore it, or, you pick fights with it.”
I was the one chuckling now. Jack had nailed me in ways I hadn't expected to be nailed. I didn't have any particular 'strategy' to get elected Deputy. I just thought they should see beneath the surface and want to elect me. I was being the ill-mannered, contentious kid who wondered why no one ever asked him to play. It worked to get the Institution to leave me alone, but there was no reason in heaven or on earth that they should reward me for being disagreeable.
Jack smiled and patted my leg. “I'm going to go 'play nice' with these folks,” he said, getting up, “You might consider joining me....”
So I did and watched him genuinely enjoy himself as he moved through crowds of people, stopping to chat or tell a joke. It wasn't nearly as painful as I had imagined. The next time—after kissing enough ecclesiastical babies and butts—I was elected to General Convention and was twice more since then. And, as Jack so gently taught me, the kissing up part wasn't unpleasant at all. I discovered most Episcopalians in Connecticut are hale fellows and gals well met, by in large. I'm a better person and better priest for learning that from Jack.

Snork and Jack both worked with and ministered to the margins of society before it be came de rigor for the church to do that. Long before Presiding Bishop Browning declared 'there are no outcasts' in the Episcopal Church, Snork was working with runaways, street people, drug abusers and hippies. Jack had a vibrant ministry to gay and lesbian folks a couple of decades before GLBT were four letters the church recognized. As the part time Rector of Trinity Church in Waterbury—the most Anglo-Catholic parish in the area—Jack invited and nurtured gay folk in remarkable ways. He was their 'pastor' and 'priest' and a quiet advocate for inclusion in the life of the church.
While I was at St. John's, a chapter of Integrity was founded. Integrity is a group for GLBT Episcopalians and their friends. I asked Jack to be the first chaplain to the group—a role I wanted but knew I couldn't play since it became clear that my inviting Integrity to St. John's caused a remarkable fire-storm in the parish. I dutifully and proudly announced I had welcomed the chapter to use the sanctuary and library for their meetings and let it be known that I would be glad to have conversations with anyone with questions. This was in the early 1990's and I was na├»ve enough to think no one would raise an eyebrow about the whole thing. How silly of me. (One of my character flaws is that I think of myself as 'the norm' in society. I am genuinely astonished when people disagree with my theology or politics.) So I wasn't prepared for the what was truly only four people, but four people with much mischief in mind.
It saddens me to tell you that the Gang of Four could be as destructive as they were. After all, they were just four aging white men, but I quickly learned that four aging, homophobic white men could do a lot of damage to a parish community. Give them credit, two of them were former wardens and did have some reputational power (very important power in a parish). The other two were the masterminds, however; one not even a member of the parish and the second one only marginal. The first move was when the marginal member—someone whose face I knew from the back row at 8 a.m. Eucharists but only learned his name when an usher told me he was upset. So I called him and he came in to talk, or rather, to rage at me. I had some experience with dealing with irrational people, but this was beyond my ken. He called me names, threatened my career and personal well-being, told me how much 'fecal matter' a sexually active gay man ingested in a year and described sexual acts I had neither heard of or imagined (and were, finally, none of my business). That meeting, which ended with me walking out of my office, leaving him there, and going to a local bar, convinced me that I should never meet with any of the group without a witness. I called Jack.
Jack told me he could have warned me if he had known I was going to be so stupid as to meet with someone like that alone. (Of course, Jack didn't call me 'stupid'...something along the lines of 'marginally mistaken'...something Jack-like and kind. But I never faced any of them in person without Jack, sitting like a Buddha in the corner of the room. He always wore a black suit and clericals when he was the silent witness to the escalating attacks on me by the Gang of Four. And early on he told me something very Yoda-like: “Fight not in the shadows...” Jack said.
So I dragged the whole mess out into the middle of the room, into the light of day and parish meetings and sermons and articles in the newsletter. Whatever they did, I made immediately public. Like when they started calling people in the parish directory to ask if they knew that the Rector was letting fagots and perverts use the church. One of the first people in the A's in the directory was a member of the vestry who was a lesbian. She hung up on whoever called and came to find me. She became a firm ally in what was to come. They also, in the C's called a woman whose brother had just died of AIDS to convince her to take up their cause against queers. They didn't 'know' who they were calling, of course.
Through it all, Jack stood by me at every meeting, his 'reputational power' and the volume of his silence radiating trust and safety to all who were confused and confounded by the conflict. The vestry, god bless them, endorsed my decision to invite Integrity to use the church. Not everyone was convinced it was a good idea, considering the conflict it had caused and considering that my predecessor as Rector had 9 years of conflict that had damaged the parish deeply. But the vestry knew that Episcopal Canon Law gives exclusive right of 'building use' to the Rector. And I was the Rector, though the four and whoever sympathized with them were hoping 'not for long....'
Jack gave me a tee-shirt he had made that said on the front: “I'M THE RECTOR, THAT'S WHY!”
Bless his heart.
After several public meeting, Jack silently by my side, where the better angels of the parish were given voice, things began to go away, at least until I found out that the Four had contacted a notorious anti-Gay priest in Pittsburgh for advice on how to rid themselves of me. That's when I called my bishop (the one at the time was no champion of gay folks but was a strict interpreter of Canon Law and the integrity (no pun intended) of diocesan lines.) With his permission I invoked the disciplinary rubric on page 409 of the Book of Common Prayer—the part about denying communion to those who “have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation”--telling the Four I would refuse to give them the host unless they ceased and desisted what they had been doing. Within a month or two, two of them died and one moved to Florida. The fourth member of the Gang—bless his heart—repented and became, once more a wonderful member of the community, going out of his way, I heard, to welcome gay folk to St. John's.
All Jack told me after all that was this: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Jack could get away with saying stuff like that.

There was a remarkable gay couple at St. John's while Jack was a member of the parish. They had met in high school and had been faithful to each other for over four decades. Neither had ever had another lover. They had come to St. John's as volunteers for Bill H., who had AIDS. At first they dropped Bill at the door and went for breakfast. Then, when Bill needed more attention, they would take him to his pew and then wait for him in the parish library. Finally, they started sitting with him and when they realized the deep affection of the congregation for Bill, the two of them became members themselves.
They had asked me to give their home a house blessing and wondered if I could throw in a blessing for their 'marriage' as well. This was years before same sex marriage became the law of Connecticut and I knew I would be on dangerous ground. So I talked with Jack. Jack was glad to come along and bless the couples' rings and relationship, using words that sounded quite true to the formula of the Book of Common Prayer.
I asked Jack if he thought I should have done it myself.
“No,” he said. “You're still beholden to the church and could get in unnecessary trouble.” Then he smiled and winked. “I'm just an old retired fart, what can the bishop do to me?”
Now I'm just an old retired fart, the way Jack was then. If I could only be a percentage as gracious and bold and wise as he was—that would be a state devoutly to be desired.

Both Jack and Snork had five children. One of Jack and Marge's kids died in childhood and another was severely mentally handicapped. Snork's five—3 girls and 2 boys—are, I suspect, still alive and well. The difference was Jack had Marge to help him raise the kids and Snork raised his children primarily by himself. Divorce, even so short a time ago as the 1970's was still suspect when you were an Episcopal priest. So Snork wasn't going to become a cardinal rector anywhere—not that he wanted to and not that he would have if he'd been happily married. Snork had this 'white Afro' of sandy red hair. Jack was a red-head too—though when I met him, white haired as he was, I asked, “how did all your kids get red hair?” He snorted. “What color hair do you think I was born with—white?”
Snork's children were always omnipresent. When I first met him one daughter was in her late adolescence and the others spaced above her. The three daughters were all lovely and not a little seductive. It was an odd home to grow up in since Snork was constantly inviting people he found wandering on the earth to come and sleep there. Mostly the visitors just smoked dope and hung out at Snork's house but sometimes they ripped him off, carrying away electronic equipment and whatever else they could sell. One guy really cleaned him out but some of us ran him to ground and got Snork's stuff back. Snork, of course, wouldn't turn the guy in and he was still welcome beneath Snork's roof. As you might imagine, the guy cleaned Snork out again and disappeared.
I was trying to get Snork to explain why he would let the fox back in the henhouse. He bobbed around the way he always did—one mass of nervous energy—and said, “Well, obviously I didn't think he'd do it again....” And then laughed, wondering if I knew anyone with a used stereo and some records for sale.
That was just Snork. It wasn't so much that he was foolish about human nature—though he certainly was—it was more that he was unable to think bad about anyone. Sometimes he could disarm really shady characters by treating them as if they were paragon's of virtue. But just as often, he got ripped off. However, he never seemed more than momentarily put out and was usually sure that he'd been robbed for some higher, purer more exalted reason than simple human greed.
One of Snork's gifts was to allow most of the people around him the opportunity to worry about him and try to keep him safe from his own good nature. Like the time he started a bible study group and had it invaded by fundamentalists. There only seemed to be two kinds of 'Christians' around the campus those days—semi-believing counter cultural types and raving charismatics. At least it seemed that way to me. Trinity, the parish church, had become very conservative so Snork, who was partially paid by Trinity, was always treading softly around there. Not only did he look radical, he was radical. But he was also a loving, kind man, which covered a multitude of his liberal sins. Things eventually got so bad that a group broke away from Trinity and formed St. Thomas a Beckett, with Snork as their vicar. But that was later—what Snork tried to do when I was around was offer alternatives to the conservatives...like his Bible study.
I didn't attend when he started the group but within a week or so he called me and said I had to start coming. After two years at Harvard Divinity School, I wasn't in the mood for Bible study but Snork explained he'd lost control and wanted me to 'kick some ass' for him. Which I dutifully did, out of love for him but also because kicking charismatics' asses was a load of fun
I told Snork afterward that he could have just canceled the study group or driven away the bible thumpers who were confusing a handful of undergrads who really wanted to know more about God—Snork's sweet and loving God.
He shook his hair heavy head. “I just couldn't do that,” is all he said.
At first I thought it was about not offending the folks at Trinity's right wing sensibilities. But, on second thought, it was simply that Snork did not have the capacity to shout down or offend anyone, ever. He was as gentle a man as I ever knew. And his gentleness soothed and healed those around him much as, years later, Jack's quiet presence had done so much to stop the bleeding over gays at St. John's.
Gentle men—both of them. Would that I could emulate them more fully.

Just before my 25th birthday, my mother had a massive stroke from which she never recovered. She was 63—the age I am as I sit writing this—so the memory is fresh and damp upon me these days. My father had called in the middle of the night, frightened and irrational. I promised I'd leave at daybreak to drive home. It was a 5 ½ hour trip and I was so shaken I wasn't convinced I could do it. My wife was in school and had a performance so she couldn't come with me. I woke Snork up to ask him to think gentle thoughts for me as I drove. Instead, he insisted on meeting me at Trinity Church at 5:30 the next morning.
He was unlocking the chapel door when I arrived. I lived only a few blocks from the church but my hands were shaking as I drove over to the parking lot. Snork wordlessly embraced me and half-led, half-carried me into the dark chapel. He told me to sit and that he'd be right back. I sat in the early morning light in that Gothic chapel, smelling the stone and the candles' wax, listening to the profound silence of such buildings, waiting, hardly thinking at all, frightened but settled. But there was no way I could make that drive to Bluefield. I started thinking of someone I might ask to drive me or, having Snork take me to the Airport in Pittsburgh or the Morgantown bus station.
Then he was back, decked out in full Eucharistic vestments over his jeans and sandals. I'd never seen Snork wear a chasuble before. He even had on one of those useless, anachronistic manaples no one ever wore. Before I knew what was happening, he had started staying the words of the Communion service from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer—words so solemn and beautiful that I stood as he prayed. He gave me communion and anointed me with healing oil. Then he embraced me at the altar rail and said, softly, “I think you can do the drive now....”
And I did.
I drove home and fed my mother vanilla ice cream out of little cups with a wooden spoon though she didn't know who I was or what I was doing. And my Aunt Elise came in one morning and watched me feed my mother ice cream and then wished me a Happy Birthday—my 25th—and then I stood by my mother's bed with my dad a few days later and was with my mom as she died, something I shall never forget or stop being thankful for the honor of that moment.
All because Snork gave me communion and anointed me.
(What I learned from that and never forgot was that about the only thing priests have to offer that makes any sense or difference at all is the sacraments. And in my life as a priest I have always remembered that when anyone was broken or pained or confounded, what I could give—perhaps the only thing I could give—was sacraments. So over the years I've taken hundreds of people into a chapel somewhere and given them communion and anointed them and forgiven them whatever horrid sins they had committed or imagined and washed them in the blood of the Lamb through the remarkable and profound objective reality of the bread and wine and oil and confession. All that I learned from Snork and relearned a dozen times in two dozen ways from Jack.
Both of them knew fair well the power and reality of the sacraments. And they taught that to me....God bless their hearts....)

Jack was the resident 'confessor' of St. John's during my time there, those 20 plus years. People were always disappearing into the chapel with him when I wasn't looking and he would hear their tales of woe and forgive them, whether they really needed it or not (of course 'they' thought they needed it and Jack gave forgiveness freely, completely, wondrously....) and give them the bread and wine with a few well placed words and anoint them with that oh so holy oil. What a privilege it was to sit at their knees and learn such mysteries....

Snork dropped dead at 63—the same age as my mother, the same age I am as I write this. He was in the bookstore at West Virginia University, having just bought something (I wish I knew what so I could read it for him) and almost to the front door. He had remarried and didn't take his heart medicine because it inhibited his sex drive. His second wife was quite a bit younger than he was. The choices we make in this life are strange and wondrous. I can't blame him at all for his.
Jorge and I drove down to Morgantown from the northeast corridore together to Snork's funeral. I had temporarily left the full-time priesthood and was considering never returning. However, I'd been to a workshop called Making A Difference and had gotten my priesthood back all new. One of the distinctions of the workshop—which I have led now for 15 years or more all over the country and in Ireland several times—is the distinction between what we call 'the superstition IS' and 'occurring', or, as we called it then, 'showing up'. The distinction is that if you live in an IS world there are few possibilities. But choosing to live in an 'occurring' or 'showing up' world, life can be full of new ways of being. It's a bit more complicated than that, but that is enough to tell you because I was explaining all that to Jorge somewhere in Pennsylvania and he, driving, said to me: “Let me get this straight...what you're saying is Snork showed up dead?”
Both Jorge and I, two of the half-dozen priests who went to seminary because they knew Snork, said some words at his funeral. I have no idea what I said all these years later. But I know that I said something about how he taught me to be a priest. That I know I said. And it was true, even if I was a slow learner.
A group of us went through Snork's books and stuff. His new wife wanted us to take things. One of the things I took was a round paper plate full of names. Apparently, making this up but it has no other explanation, Snork would take a plate from coffee hour at St. Thomas a Becket and write down the names of everyone who had been there and date the plate with a magic marker. How amazing to me that he could do that—know who had been at the Eucharistic and write them all down afterward. I can't even begin to imagine the concentration and attention that would require. There are 72 names on the paper plate. It is dated, simply, Advent II 1985. That's all—72 souls remembered for having received the Body and Blood. That's all...and more than enough.

Jack loved jokes, bad jokes, really bad jokes. Like this, one he told me: Two old guys in a nursing home. One tells the other, “I don't know how old I am.” The second guy says, “wheel yourself out in the lobby and drop your pants and I'll tell you how old you are.” So they both go in their chairs into the lobby and the first guy takes off his pants. After all the upset and screams of visitors, the two of them are taken back to their room. “You're 87,” the second guy tells the one who dropped his pants. “How did you know?” the first guy asks. “You told me last week,” the second guy says.
On about any level, that is a bad joke. But Jack loved them. He loved to laugh and to hear jokes and tell them. Bad jokes. Really bad jokes.
And everyone who knew him laughed just as hard as he did, not because the jokes were funny, but because Jack—that dear man—told them. Perhaps we will all be judged, not on the quality of our jokes, but on whether everyone laughs with us simply because laughing with us—like laughing with Jack—was healing and pure and good. Like that.
Healing, pure, good...words I associate with my connections to Snork and Jack. And, oh yes, holy....
Jack died with dignity and peace, just the way he had planned it. At his funeral, it was my honor to preach. This is what I said:
October 17, 2009—Jack Parker's Memorial Service
Years ago, I went on a day trip with three men who I love like uncles and mentors and dear, dear friends. Jack Parker, Bill Penny and David Pritchard and I drove up into the heart of New England. I remember we went to a place called 'The Cathedral of the Pines' and we also went to see Jack's mountain—the one he loved and had climbed time and time again and where some of his ashes will be scattered by his remarkable family. We had a great lunch at some place one of them knew and somehow got back before it was too late for such a motley crew to be out without getting into mischief!
A friend of mine told me that there are only two plots in all of literature. One is, “a stranger arrives in town”. The other is, “someone sets out on a journey.”
I have memories of sharing part of the journey that is life with Jack Parker.
Memories like that are precious, rare, wondrous and, finally, holy.
Holy.
I've ONLY know Jack Parker for 20 years or so. I say 'only' because I know some of you have known him much longer than that—his children, his family that he loved so fiercely...and others. But knowing him for two decades was a beautiful gift to me from God. And if I had to choose a word to describe that gift it would be this--'holy'.
Holy.
I've never known anyone who loved a bad, corny joke as much as Jack.
Most of the jokes Jack loved began something like this: “A rabbi and a priest and a Baptist minister went into a bar...” Or, like this: “Three elderly men were sitting on the front porch of the nursing home....” Or, like this, “A man was trying to sell a talking dog....”
You get the point. Jack would start laughing half-way through telling the joke and anyone who was listening would start laughing with him, entranced by Jack's laugh, caught up in his story, not caring at all how the joke turned out—it would turn out bad and corny—but thankful and joyous to be sharing a laugh with Jack.
There is a word for sharing a laugh with Jack. The word is 'holy'.
Holy.
There is a word that occurs to me for anything, anytime, 'shared with Jack'.
The word is 'holy'.
Ok, he was not St. Francis of Assisi. Not quite. But he was, for me, a 'holy' man. Truly, really, without fear of contradiction, Jack was 'holy'. No kidding. I'm not exaggerating. Not at all.
He taught me so many things. Knowing Jack was like post-doctoral work in kindness and love and long-suffering and generosity of spirit and joy. Knowing Jack was like a seminar in prayerfulness. He was a priest to be admired, a man to be emulated, a quick study in sweetness. It seems an odd word, perhaps, but Jack was a sweet, sweet man. I know you all know what I mean.
And learning these things from Jack was—have I mentioned this?--holy.
The words from Jesus in today's gospel are among the most beautiful and comforting in all of Scripture.
“Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me...In my father's house are many rooms...If it were not so, would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?”
The Greek word translated 'rooms' is mona. That word has many possible translations--'rooms', 'resting places', 'mansions' (as we used to say), and 'abodes'. That's the one I like: 'abodes'...places to be, space to 'abide' in the nearer presence of the God who loves us best of all.
The last time I saw Jack, I made him promise that he wouldn't die until I got home from a trip to the beach. He said he'd try, but he wasn't sure he could. It was the only promise he didn't keep to me. He had other plans, another place to abide.
That last time I saw Jack, I offered him communion. The sacrament was Jack's favorite food and drink, but that last time he said, 'no'.
“You've been a priest to me long enough,” he told me, with that crooked smile and twinkling eye he always had. “We're just two old friends saying goodbye....”
Jack taught us all so very much about 'living'. And he taught us how to die.
And it is time now—he would have wanted it this way—it's time for us to smile and remember and thank God for the journey and say 'good bye' to our old, dear friend....
“I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.”

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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.