I can't believe I've never posted this. Another chapter from my manuscript Farther Along, about parish priesthood. Be patient, it's long.
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 Minister to the ministers 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.
Snork's chaplaincy to West Virginia University consisted of being all over the campus talking with people, being in his office talking with people, sitting in the coffee house known as “The Last Resort” talking with people, and at other times, talking with people. Late in my ministry someone asked me exactly what I did each day. I thought for a moment and said, “I walk around a lot and talk with people—and hope that I listen more than I talk.” Snork taught me that the real tools of priestcraft are speaking and listening—hopefully listening more than you talk.
Snork was a consummate listener. From time to time, at the house church we called St. Gabrial's, he would even listen to the words of consecration at the Eucharist. There were 30 or so of us, all under thirty except for Snork and the Arch-Angel Miriah (who I wrote about a few chapters ago) and most of us were new to the Episcopal Church. So, at the Wednesday night Eucharist, Snork would ask if anyone had a birthday that week. Whenever someone did, Snork let them celebrate the Eucharist while he did what he called, 'the manual acts'--elevation the bread and wine, making the sign of the cross at appropriate times, breaking the bread (always home-baked) at the end. We thought nothing of it though it violated more Canon Laws than you can imagine! What did we know? Snork was the priest and he said it was perfectly alright.
Here's a startling thing, out of those 30 odd people, 5 of us went on to become Episcopal priests, including Jorge and me and the first woman ever ordained in WV. We each had our own reasons, but I can't help but think that having once said those magic and mysterious and holy words that point to the living reality of Christ in bread and wine, you can't get it out of your system and want to say them over and again. An unorthodox form of discernment, surely, but one that seemed to be very effective....
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 have been 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 'they're 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 naïve 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. 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 Buddha 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—were, and I suspect, still are 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, 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 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. It took about two more sessions—marked by much yelling and accusations of my being a heretic at best and a hater of the baby Jesus at worst—I cleared out the right wing folks.
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 the Drama Department at West Virginia University 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 saying 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.
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'.
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'.
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.”