Monday, September 30, 2013

Cold enough for you?

My maternal grandmother, Lina Manona Sadler Jones, used to tell all 16 of the first cousins who were her grandchildren that you could tell how cold and bad the winter was going to be by seeing how bushy the tails of squirrels were in late September.

I'd been delighted over the last week or so, living in a place awash with squirrels, that most of them looked scrawny and their tails even more so. A mild winter was what I was wishing for.

Then, this afternoon, a creature was down in our back yard.

"What is that thing?" Bern asked, "it's moving too slow for a squirrel."

Then it popped out of one of the plants that are so abundant in our back yards and I realized it was a squirrel that was about as big as a cocker spaniel with a tail the size of a normal squirrel--not a squirrel's tail...a whole squirrel.

So I started thinking about taking up my neighbor Mark (who shares our double wide drive way) about investing in a snow blower. Mark is about 40 and a volunteer fire fighter so he could handle the machine. Maybe he could teach Bern or his high school senior daughter to use it too.

I used to hate the cold and love the heat. People would say to me on a 90 F./90 degree humidity day, "hot enough for you?" And I'd answer, "not nearly hot enough...and how about some more humidity?"

I really did love the heat when I was younger. But I'm not younger any more and actually probably tolerate the cold a bit more than I tolerate the heat.

I'm a spring and autumn guy now--summer and winter, I just put up with because I live in a place that has four seasons.

Friday, September 27, 2013

"My life sucks...race you to the dining hall...."

I've been doing this writing lately--since I retired--about my ministry and life and people I've known. I wouldn't call it a 'memoir' though that's probably what it is, but I enjoy writing it. I shared one of the 'chapters' on yesterday's blog. And the Cluster of churches where I work very-part-time is using some of the chapters for their book group. We've done it before and it's been really lively and helpful to hear people talk about my writing and, well, just talk.

Conversation is where possibility dwells. People just talkin'....

So, I want to have a, granted, one-sided conversation about the chapter I want to write soon. It will be called "My life sucks...race you to the dining hall...." And it will be about, of all things, Junior High Camp in the Diocese of West Virginia at a camp called Peterkin.

(New Englanders, I find, are unclear about 'junior high' because most places in New England have 'Middle School'. Here's the difference, 'junior high' divides up the hormone driven, no activity in the cerebral cortex, absolutely out of control adolescences of our society differently. "Junior High" is grades 7-9. And then you go to High School for 3 years. "Middle School" sends 9th graders into the teeth of the storm that is High School. Ninth graders are much more like 8th graders than they are like 10th graders. They belong with kids 13 and 14, not kids 16-18. 9th grade for kids in 'junior high' let's them experience being the top of the pile, the cream of the crop, the oldest kids among kids who are like them. Fifteen year old kids are so different from 18 year old kids that they should, by law, never know each other unless they are siblings. The only year of human development, it seems to me, that is a larger gap than between 15 and 16 is the gap between birth and being a year old. Babies can't talk or walk or think in any way we understand. When a kid is a year old, he/she is so different from a baby as a lizard from an amoeba.  My experience is that the difference between being 15 and being 16 is almost that profound. So, I think 15 year old kids fit much better with 13 and 14 year old kids than they ever could with kids 16-18. That's what I believe.)

And my proof is my experience for 5 years with Junior High Camp in West Virginia.

I was the Clergy Leader of Junior High Camp for the last two years I was a part of it. Until then, I was a member of the Clergy staff. And I learned about 13-15 year old kids more than I ever taught them.

16 year old's are, in my experience of having lived with two, cock-sure they're right, self-confident to a fault and believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are much smarter than their parents.

Kids below that--13-15--are completely at sea, self-conscious to an adorable fault, and, rightly or wrongly, assume adults know most everything and they know nothing.

Vulnerable, that's the word I'd use. Vulnerable and scared and longing to be older.

My title for the chapter I intend to write about Junior High Camp is a direct quote from a 15 year old girl who was so vulnerable and broken and adrift. We were talking about her parent's divorce and her older brother druggie and how awful her life was as we strolled from the chapel at Peterkin to the dining hall for lunch. "My life sucks," she told me after a recitation of the horrors of being her. Then, in the same breath, she said, "race you to the dining hall" and took off running.

She beat me.

As sucky as her life was, I saw her 7 years ago at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. She was a clergy deputy from some mid-western place--Kansas or Nebraska or some other state I've only flown over. She was an Episcopal priest. Somehow that fragile, frightened, damaged young girl was now a wondrous and competent and accomplished priest. And when we talked one night over dinner and some wine, she told me her experience at Peterkin had changed her life, helped her be well and stay well and become strong.

Kids between 13 and 15 often have experiences that form them for the rest of their journey. In what I want to write, I want to ponder how a church camp might, just maybe, provide the space and time for that formation.

I would have never worked on the Peterkin Senior High Camp staff. I don't get that age, not at all. I didn't 'get' Josh and Mimi between 16 and 18. I was awash in the flotsam and jetsam their wake floated onto my shore. But in their early teens I saw the vulnerability, the fragility, the longings of their life, how they were pondering 'who to be' and 'how to be that'.

The kids at Junior High camp prepared me for having children their age. One of the best ages ever--unless it's you who are that age.....

Thursday, September 26, 2013

book group

The three Cluster churches have a book group that meets many Thursdays. For the second time, they are kind enough to read some stuff I've been writing since I retired from full time ministry. We did 6 chapters 6 months or so ago. We're doing five more (or six maybe) this time. I thought I'd share them with you too. Comments, suggestions, thoughts--email me at with message line "WRITINGS" so I'll be sure to look.


In the Beginning
I never intended to become an Episcopal priest and spend the best years of my life in parish ministry. What I intended was to earn a Ph.D. in American Literature from some reasonably prestigious university and then teach contemporary literature at some small liberal arts college while I wrote the Great American Novel. Well, the road to priesthood is paved with such intentions.
John Stasny, was my favorite professor in college—I took seven of his classes in my eight semesters so it could be said that I minored in Mr. Stasny. At any rate, he and Manfred Otto Meitzen, head of the Religion Department (who later died in a motorcycle accident in Branson, Missouri) came to me in my senior year and told me they had recommended me for a 'trial year in seminary' to be paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation. All I had to do was go through some interviews and tell the Rockefeller people over and again that I didn't want to go to seminary.
“I don't want to go to seminary,” I told them, “I'm waiting to hear from the University of Virginia and Iowa for graduate school.”
“That's perfect!” Mr Stasny said. (Although he was a tenured professor at WVU, he didn't have a doctorate. I once asked him why and he answered, “Bradley, who on earth would test me?” I had to agree.)
“How's that 'perfect'?” I asked. “I don't want to go to seminary. It's never crossed my mind....”
“Perfect,” said Dr. Meitzen, “just tell the committee that over and over.”
So, just to please these two men I admired greatly, I went to Pittsburgh to be interviewed. I told the committee in a dozen ways and inside out/upside down a dozen more that I most certainly DIDN'T want to go to seminary.
“Great,” they all said, over and again, “that's just perfect!”
So I became a Rockefeller Fellow and went to Harvard Divinity School on the Rockefeller's money, stayed another year and got a degree—an MTS, 'Master of Theological Studies', which, along with $3.75 will get you a small coffee at Starbucks.
Remitha Spurlock, one of the most holy people I ever knew, who was a member of the first parish I served—St. James in Charleston, West Virginia—often said, “God works is mischievous ways.” And so God does—along with the Rockefeller foundation.
You know, after reading the chapter about the Archangel Mariah, why I went back to finish a professional degree and became a priest. But I blame John Stasny and Manfred Otto Meitzen for pointing me toward that all-wrong trip to Harvard Divinity School, where I'd get bitten (as I imagine they thought I might) by the Theology-bug and change all my plans.
I landed at Harvard at the best time ever: 1969. Hell's bells, things were a poppin' in those heady days! In my four semesters, three of them were cut short by a student strike, a faculty strike and a combined student/faculty strike. I was immersed in the chaos I love and thrive in. Ask anyone who knows me—I do best in chaos. And if it doesn't exist, I will find a way to create it.
I was friends with a law student at Harvard named Helen Anderson. She later became a writer about 'law and women' and occasionally had a column in the The New York Times. But in those weird times in the late 60's and early 70's, Helen was a drama queen. The day the National Guard was called out to protect the ROTC building—Harvard had ROTC, amazing—Helen came to my room in Divinity Hall to tell me, “the Revolution is starting and I have nothing to wear!”
I was once down at the Boston Common with Helen and Don, my best friend at Harvard. Helen got a run in her panty hose. Nothing would do
her but go to Jordan Marsh to buy new ones. The young clerk asked her what shade she wanted and Helen said, “how many shades are there?”
“Two hundred and twenty four,” the clerk responded and Helen burst into tears.
“I can't cope with that much pressure,” she cried and headed for the Ladies' Room. Don made the decision for her and got burnt cinnamon, if my memory serves me. Once we delivered them to the bathroom and Helen put them on, it was if nothing had happened. We went to ride the Swan Boats.
I'll try in these musings and reflections and memories to share some thoughts about parish ministry and 'the Church'(that wondrous and schizophrenic institution) but most of what I will write will be about the people who served me more faithfully and well than I ever served them. People are, after all, the real raw material of parish ministry—much of the rest is window dressing and smoke and mirrors. To quote The Rev. Wil B. Dunn, the parson in the comic strip Kudzu, “human relations is my field....”
For the last decade or so of my full-time ministry, I decided not to have an office. I did most all the writing and study I needed to do at home or sitting in the parish library with the door open. I know I probably annoyed the office staff no end by hanging around on the first floor so much, but it seemed to me that what I was 'for' was to be present to the daily swirl of activity of that very busy urban parish. Hundreds of people came through the church doors everyday—the soup kitchen was feeding 300+ a day when I retired, the Choristers were there two afternoons a week, a dance group used the building twice a week, someone was always trying out the McManis Organ, people wandered off the street to take a look and I was usually there to give them a tour of the remarkable building, lots of local groups used our rooms for meetings, and parish members who just popped in always saw me wandering around. That was a good thing. Being around people suited me much more than being in an office doing something that probably, in the cosmic scheme of things, was pretty unnecessary.
I once asked the son of a very active Episcopal lay woman what his mom did all the time. “She looks for meetings to go to,” he told me. He was six, I remember.
I think lots of church folks, especially clergy, 'look for meetings to go to' to demonstrate how busy they are. Meetings were, of course, a part of my life, but I didn't 'look for' them. Instead, what I did, at least in the last decade of my full-time ministry was 'hang around'. It suited me rather well, I believe.

Divinity Hall, where I lived for a year, was next door to the Semitic Museum. Harvard, in its infinite wisdom, had leased an office in that building to the CIA for recruiting purposes. Remember—this was 1969—the SDS or even more radical group, found out about the CIA office and tried to blow up the Semitic Museum one night. There were a whole host of firetrucks and other emergency vehicles out on the street and I wanted to see what was going on. There was Dr. G. E. Wright, an Old Testament scholar, sitting on the edge of the sidewalk holding some relic that had been damaged. He was weeping.
G. E. Wright was a renowned person in his field. He was one of the best teachers at Harvard and known far and wide, along with Professor Von Radt from Germany, as a leading light in Old Testament studies. He was also renowned for saying in his lectures: “there are two ways to study the Old Testament. The Von Radt way and the Wright way....” That was always greeted with laughter and applause.
And there he was, sitting on the curb, weeping over the lost documents and artifacts from the explosion, which, by the way, didn't damage the CIA offices at all. In that moment, there on Divinity Avenue, I realized the value of 'the past'. Until that moment I believed stuff in museums and rare book collections was nothing more than 'old stuff'. But seeing this world-wide wide acknowledged, aging man, weeping over the loss of 'old stuff' convinced me forever of the value of history and the 'stuff' history created. And I respected Dr. Wright a great deal from that moment forward.
One of the theology professors at Harvard was Richard Reinhold Niebuhr—son of Richard and nephew of Reinhold. Ralph McGill, another theologian, once commented about Dr. Niebuhr: “what was the boy going to do after all? Drive a cab in San Francisco? Theology is the family business.” (Dr. McGill had, in fact, driven a San Francisco cab for a few year, a vocation he said was a perfect prelude to a life spent talking about God.)
Niebuhr as a strange character to us all. He was a quintessential absent-minded professor. Once he wandered into the lecture hall carrying an armful of fat books, spead them all out, rearranged the order they were in, turned to a particular page in each one, stared at them for a while and drew on the chalk board in wild, cruel, looping lines until he had created what looked like a deformed tornado. He stared at that for a while, at the same time cocking his head to listen to a bird outside the open window singing to the perfect Spring day.
“The Void,” he said, not bothering to look at the 75 or so students sitting in tiers behind him. And then, almost to himself, he repeated, “the Void...” In a moment, he drew a stick figure of a man in the midst of the funnel cloud. He stepped back and said, reverently, it seemed to me, “Homo religiosis.”
He listened to the bird again, closed and gathered his books and left, perhaps to go to his study, perhaps to walk around in the warm April sun. We never figured out whether he just forgot he had a lecture to give or if the bird's song has mesmerized him.
I was walking back to Divinity Hall with my friends Don and Cal, still stunned by what we had witnessed.
“You could ever make this stuff up,” Don said.
Cal asked, “what did that French phrase mean?”
You couldn't have made Cal up either.
Cal was dozing beside me in a New Testament lecture by Dean Kristor Stendahl, at that time, the once and future bishop of Sweden. When Stendahl got started talking about the Holy Spirit, he said, “Jesus promised his followers to send the Paraclete.”
Cal woke up and shook my arm.
“Did he say 'parakeet'?” Cal whispered, ready to write something down.
Another time, in a Stendahl lecture, the Dean said, “within two decades of the crucifixion, the apostles began to peter out.”
He paused for all of us to moan.
“Wasn't that a-Paul-ing,” he asked.
Of all the brilliant, odd folks at Harvard, Frank Cross took the cake. He was an Old Testament scholar who, someone once said, probably dreamed in Hebrew. He made Niebuhr seem focused and alert. The story went like this: one morning Frank Cross got in his car, was thinking about Isaiah or Numbers or something, forgot to shut the driver's side door and tore it off on the tree beside his driveway. The next morning, in his rental car, he did the very same thing. The morning after that, the legend said, he had the tree cut down.
Then there was Rabbi Katenstein who taught a course called “The Life Cycle in Christian Worship”. All the students were Christians of various hues, 16 different hues among 17 students. All semester we brought in examples of how our particular cult of Christianity celebrated certain aspects of the 'life cycle'--birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, sickness, death, burial, like that. I was the only Episcopalian in the class and thanked the little baby Jesus and whatever God might be for the Book of Common Prayer—1928--because it had all things, even a service for the purifying of women after child birth—something the Rabbi went nuts about in joy. His job, it occurred to me much later, was to teach us Christians how Jewish we really were. Almost every liturgy or ritual we brought up in that class was an opportunity for Rabbi Katzenstein to let us know the Jewish/Jesus roots of all our fanfare and celebrations.
It stunned me. I began, half way through the class to wonder why I hadn't had a bar-mitzvah, since obviously, as a Christian, I was a Jew as well. That class served me well when I invited a Muslim group to make their mosque in a building St. John's, Waterbury owned. Rabbi Katzenstein taught me, in no uncertain terms, that, not only are the hues of Christians not that important, the distinctions between Faiths were not that significant either. God/Yahweh/Ala, thank him for that.
(I just realized, writing this, that all of these great people who taught me so well are probably dead or old, old men. It was nearly 40 years ago and they were all in their 50's when I knew them—except for Dr. Meitzen, who ended his stay on earth outside the Country Music Capitol of the Universe. I'll always hope he had seen some shows before he and his wife died on that motorcycle, rather than thinking they were on their way to see Dolly and George and Garth when they died. It's difficult for me to think of the them as any older than they were when they taught me wondrous things about theology and life. Generations come and go and leave behind valuable things. G.E. Wright, sobbing in front of the Semitic Museum knew that only too keenly. And, as I age, I value the wisdom and the kookiness of those marvelous people more each day.

After my visitation from the Archangel Mariah, I went to Virginia Seminary for two yeas, which meant I had four years of theological education instead of the normal three for ordination. Both EDS I Cambridge and GTS in New York City agreed that I could come for only one more year. They were willing to accept all my credits from Harvard. Virginia Seminary was not so open. I needed two years of field work in a parish to meet their graduation requirements. I made me so angry that I decided to go there and make their lives miserable for two years. Which I did. Well, perhaps not 'miserable', but I kept them on their toes.

That's an exaggeration. VTS is bigger and stronger and has more integrity than you can imagine. I may have annoyed the seminary around the edges, but it hardly made a dent. The truth is, I look back on those two years with gratitude and appreciation. Who I was when I showed up in Alexandria was angry, arrogant, self-centered and profoundly ironic. Whan I left, I was a little less of all that and ready to be a priest. What formed me at Virginia Seminary was the incredible faculty and their commitment to 'making priests'. Virginia never claimed to be a 'graduate school of Theology'. It was a training ground for parish priests. That's what VTS claimed to do, what they did, and what they did quite well.
So, here are some people from VTS:
Charlie Price
Charlie taught several things, but he excelled at Liturgics. He began each year of the year long 'Introduction to Liturgy' by handing out what he called “Forty Beastly Questions”. Then he taught to the questions. It was a remarkable approach. We spent two semesters wrestling with the questions Charlie posed.
I remember one that we labored over mightily: What is necessary for baptism to be valid?
The point to this question, as with all the questions, was to struggle with liturgical issues in a way we never had before. 'Baptism', for all of us, I suspect, was a ritual performed in a parish church by a priest after dutifully training and informing the parents and godparents of the child (and speaking seriously with the occasional adult candidate) about the meaning of the sacrament, the history of 'washing' in Jewish practice, the role of parents and god-parents and how to 'speak loudly' when answering the questions asked of them from the Book of Common Prayer.
Charlie wanted us to get way, way past that image to the very nuts and bolts of baptism: “what is necessary?”
“Water and oil,” we said, thinking we'd figured it our, “and a priest and witnesses.”
“Well,” he told us, “what about the baptisms in blood on battlefields over the centuries? Are they invalid?”
Some of us were through at that juncture. Charilie's questions never had a 'right' answer, he just wanted us to arrive at an answer we could live with.
But some others of us had to admit we found all that 'battlefield baptism' rather romantic and didn't want to give it up. So, for those of us, the most obvious answer, “water and oil”, didn't work.
“So, how about a priest?” we asked Charlie.
“Read the rubrics,” he told us. (Rubrics are the little instructions in the Prayer Book. They're called 'rubrics' because in early editions of the BCP, they were written in red. Rubrics and Canons are what govern the Episcopal Church. Another piece of Charlie-Wisdom was this: “never unknowingly break a canon.” He knew that most of us would break more than one along the way—but we should know what we were doing and be able to answer for it if ever asked.)
Well, in the rubrics about baptism, it is clear that a deacon can administer baptism with the sealing in oil to be done later by a priest or bishop. And, in emergencies, any 'baptized person' may do the ritual, if the person recovers, the rest of the service should be done by a priest, omitting the administration of water. So a priest isn't necessary. Any baptized person can baptize.
“So”, we raced back to Charlie to say, feeling proud, “all that is necessary is a Christian and the words of baptism.”
He told us to go think about it some more. Would God—the God Charlie knew and loved and we were learning about—would THAT God deny baptism to on of God's beloved children simply because a baptized Christian wasn't present?
That divided the house of those still inquiring about the 'right answer', just as Charlie intended. Some held out from that point on for the need of a baptized Christian for baptism to occur. A few of us were more open to the possibility that Charlie's God, more expansive than ours by a long short, would let a heathen baptize someone in extremis. Charlie had taken away almost everything that made us comfortable with the sacrament—water, priests, oil, Christians. What was left.
“The words said,” we told him, the few of us, fairly panting that's we'd at last solved his puzzle. “You need the words, 'in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” We were so delighted to give him the answer.
He smiled and laughed—Charlie was a great one for smiling and laughing. Then he said words to the three of us I think I will never forget and pray to remember always. “So, you're telling me that the Great God Almighty who spread out the universe and created all things, the God who lives and moves and has being in our midst, would deny baptism to someone who desired it because the only person there with him was a deaf-mute Muslim?”
That was the last straw for one of our trio. All the others had already answered the question for themselves in a way they could live with—which was the point of the whole exercise I later understood. Charlie just wanted us to realize we'd 'come down' where we'd 'come down' for a reason. He forced us to look at familiar things so critically, so analytically, that we'd always know 'why' we believed what we believed. But the two of us sought him out at lunch in the Refectory one day.
“OK,” one of us said, “what if the only thing necessary for baptism to be valid is the 'intention' to be baptized?
He stopped his fork half-way to his mouth.
“We are now way beyond doctrine and dogma and practice,” he said. “We're beyond ritual and rubrics. We in dangerous territory. The Enemy is near.” Then he took a bite. Charlie could say stuff like that and not sound silly.
As he was chewing, I felt we were on the edge of a precipice, looking over a sheer cliff, nothing below us, nothing to keep us from jumping off.
“I'm not saying 'this is the right answer', there being no right answer,not really. The two of us were hanging on every word. “But what if, just what if—and I'm not saying I believe this in any way,” he said, growing as somber, save one other time, that I'd ever seen him, “what if the intention is God's alone?”
My friend and I left Charlie to finish his lunch. Oddly, we never talked about his response to our question. It would have been frivolous and vain to have discussed it and analyzed it and a betrayer to have told others about it. But I know I've pondered Charlie's strange words ever since. They are always in the background of my considerations about theology and God.
“Jump,” the Buddhist masters say, “and the net will find you....”
Charlie gave us 39 other 'beastly questions' and I only realized decades later that the purpose of the questions was not the 'answers' but the 'inquiry' the questions set in motion. And I realized that by then, Charlie's God had become my God—a God that prefers the struggle to the resolution, the wrestling to the winning, the deep wonderings of paradox to certainty and clarity. For that realization, I am forever grateful.
We also did a liturgics practicum with Charlie—we called it 'play church'. We baptized baby dolls, anointed each other for healing, did marriage services for each other (and since there were 15 men and one woman in my section, we participated in same-sex unions long before our time!) buried shoe boxes and had mock Eucharists. When I was distributing the wafers once, Charlie stuck out his tongue at me. Having grown up in the Pilgrim Holiness Church and the mountain Methodist Church where we hardly ever had communion (and when we did it was sitting in our pews with our little personal crouton and a tiny plastic cup of grape juice) I was startled at his tongue and started laughing.
“Put the wafer on my tongue,” he told me. “Try not to make finger contact with my tongue and then move on....”
The first parish I served was a Black parish. Black Episcopalians tend toward 'high church' where receiving the wafer on you tongue is the norm. So Charlie saved me from enormous embarrassment and endless explanations when, on my first Sunday at St. James, fully half of those coming to communion stuck out their tongues at me.
Just one more thing I have to thank God and Charlie for....
Finally, Charlie probably kept me from getting expelled from VTS even though I graduated second in my class. My assigned adviser was Reginald Fuller, a renowned New Testament scholar who actually co-wrote one of the best books I ever read, The Book of the Acts of God, with G. E. Wright, who we last saw on the sidewalk outside the Semitic Museum at Harvard. But I hadn't had any classes from Dr. Fuller, though I'd met once morning a week with him and his other advisees at his house for worship. Once, he celebrated communion with us in the living room wearing full Eucharistic vestments. Odd, I thought.
He was the shining light of the few Anglo-Catholic students. One morning a week, chapel was the responsibility of students. The high church students convinced Reggie to celebrate a 'high mass', with incense and bells, chanting and bowing. Back in that day, such carryings-on were not tolerated by the low church folks at VTS. Several students and more than one faculty member walked out rather than be present at such Popish Nonsense. I'd never seen such a thing and stayed throughout, mesmerized by the smoke wafting around the chapel, by the eerie cadence of the chanting, by the exaggerated manual acts of Dr. Fuller.
Anyway, he didn't know me well. He didn't understand my ironic kind of charm. He didn't know I was a serious student whose quips and sardonic way of talking simply announced the seriousness with which I too, my calling by the Archangel Mariah and, I hoped, Charlie's God. Besides, it was my job to make the idyllic life on the 'holy hill' in Alexandria a little more interesting....
Dr. Fuller stopped me in the hallway of Aspinwall Hall, the main building at VTS about half-way through the last semester of my senior year.
“Mr. Bradley,” he said in his Oxbridge accent, “we need to make an appointment to discuss the ordinal.”
I knew fair well that was British-speak for 'the ordination service', something taken very seriously by a seminary committed to producing parish priests. But what I said was flip, ironic, smart-assed and, in the end, stupid.
“The Baltimore Ordinal?” I asked, much to the amusement of the students in the hall around us. I always intended to 'amuse' and poke fun at most everything. I succeeded rather well with all save Dr. Fuller, who turned on his heel, redness rising in his face, and made his way to the Dean's office to describe, in what I am sure was flawless English, my impertinence. Not to mention my arrogance and frivolousness. All of which, I must humbly admit these many years later, was 'on spot', as Reggie would have said. And, as I would have said, 'true'.
To graduate from VTS you had to, obviously, have enough credits and not have committed a felony offense. In addition, you had to have your adviser 'sign off' that you were fit to be a priest. Well, my little, inappropriate joke about the Baltimore Ordinal had hardened Dr. Fuller's heart. He would not approve me for graduation—and, therefore, ordination—without an apology, which, in my Young Turk days of trying to prove to Virginia Seminary that they were fools for making me study two years instead of one, I was not willing to give.
During all this, and after pleas from the Dean to apologize, which I refused--”the man has to know how to take a joke,” I remember saying—I contacted double pneumonia and was in Alexandria Hospital, a few blocks from the campus. Incidentally, I had two room-mates in succession at the hospital die on consecutive nights. The psychiatrist came to see me to make sure I wasn't freaking out and took my request to not have any other room-mates seriously. So, for over a week, I laid in bed, had treatments, sucked up gallons of antibiotic laced saline through an IV and wondered if I would graduate.
All my classmates decided to try out their hospital visitation skills until I put in a request not to allow anyone in except my wife. However, Charlie Price charmed his way through the insulation I thought I had and came to my bedside.
After asking about my health and recovery, Charlie said: “Jim, I hope and pray that some day you will come to a moment, a principle, some issue or another that you will be willing to risk your career, your priesthood for. I really hope that.”
Then, after a pause, he added, “Jim this silly fight with Dr. Fuller is NOT that moment....Apologize, get a new adviser and move on.”
He was absolutely right. So, I did apologize, got a new adviser, graduated and was ordained.
So much I owe to Charlie Price. So much. Even more than that.
Looking back, I feel like an utter fool about the whole Reggie-Gate thing. That is an appropriate feeling since I really, really was a fool.

Mary Ann Mixx
Dr. Mixx as the only woman professor at VTS when I was thee. She was a New Testament scholar and, from all accounts, a superior one. Her presence on campus was an oddity to us all—the only female and, save one other, the only un-ordained professor. Once, sitting at the same table at lunch with her and hearing other students discussing Romans, I got on my “I Hate Paul!” rant. Everyone was initally aghast, first that I would 'hate Paul' and, probably more importantly, that I didn't know Paul was one of Dr. Mixx's passions.
I saw her in a hallway a few days later and apologized for my hatred of Paul. I didn't repent it, please notice, but apologized for whatever might have offended her about it. (I wasn't quite the total pain-in-the-ass I claim to have been at VTS!) She waved my apology away, and, instead of saying what most of the professors said when accosted by a student in a hallway: “Well....” while looking at their wrist watch. Instead of that, Dr. Mixx said, “you have any plans for winter term?”
Winter Term was a two week mini-semester after Christmas and before the Spring semester began. There were tedious classes that met every single day for two weeks, too much information too fast, and too much library time all at once for students who had come, long before, to live in Academic time...semesters, not two weeks. I hated the winter term.
“I haven't decided yet,” I told her, delaying as usual, making decisions about classes, or anything, for that matter.
“Do a reading course with me,” she said, “on Paul's letters.”
A 'reading course' was the last refuge of people who didn't really want to go to class. Like me. My heart lept up....
“You want to make me love Paul?” I asked, always suspicious of the motives of people smarter than me.
She laughed. “I don't care one way or the other how you feel about Paul,” she said, still chuckling. “I just thought it would be fun for both of us....”
I was stunned. A VTS professor making a suggestion on the basis of 'fun'! How could I turn that down.
“Me too,” I told her, “I'm always up for some fun.”
Here's what she asked me to do: A. read all Paul's letters and give her a list of the things he said that I hated and have a conversation with her about my list; B. Put the letters in chronological order instead of the order in the New Testament, read them that way, and write a paper about what I learned from the exercise.
The truth is, I only had a faint notion of the reality that Paul's letters aren't in chronological order. So that was a valuable research exercise. What shifted for me as I read Paul in the order of writing was that most of the stuff I hated came in the earlier letters when Paul was harsh and judgmental and boastful. Read in the order in which they were written, I noticed a softening, a mellowing of Paul that I hadn't been able to notice before. As he aged and became certain of what he initially believed (that Jesus was coming back on next Tuesday if not next Monday and that he, Paul would be there to greet him) his tone shifted subtilely. There was more ambiguity, more openness, a new found ability to hedge his bets. That later Paul wasn't the monster I had always experienced.
I still hated him, I told Dr. Mixx in our conversations and my final paper—but not for the same reasons as before. Then, as now, 35 years later, I am sad that Christianity is more “Pauline” than “Jesus-like”. Over the centuries, Paul's thought has insinuated itself into the fabric of the faith and altered the all-embracing, never met a stranger kind of faith Jesus sought to pass along. The church is fussy and strict and patronizing in ways obvious and not so obvious. We are wed to doctrine and swayed by dogma that doesn't have much at all to do with the “suffer the little children to come unto me” attitude of Jesus. When compassion bumps head with canon law, guess which side almost always wins? But what I did learn profoundly is that I need to give Paul a bit more of a pass on things. I considered, back then, what if the letters I have written in my life were all that people knew of who I was and what my trust was in? What I consider now—much more frightening—is what if all that people knew about me was gleaned from going over the e-mails I have written rather than from knowing me face to face?
Horrors! So though I don't yet adore Paul, I cut him a break. And for that I am always grateful to Mary Ann Mixx.
Interestingly enough, something that got me in hot water with the Dean, before the Reggie Fuller Fiasco, was an article I wrote for the “Ambo”, the student newspaper, using the front door of Aspenwall Hall as a metaphor for what was lacking at Virginia Seminary. That door was ten feet tall and solid oak and took a strong person to open. I wrote in my article that it was a “Pauline Door”--a door that represented the rigor and narrowness of Paul. I called for a “Petrine Seminary”, one based on the acknowledged frailties and weaknesses of Peter—the one who doubted, the one who ran away, the one who betrayed. I simply identified more with Peter than Paul.
I got a note in my little mail box in the coffee room to come see the Dean. I went straight to his office and his secretary showed me in. It was morning so he offered tea or coffee. I was wishing it was late afternoon because everything that happened in late afternoon at VTS involved an offer of sherry.
I sat down, sipping my coffee (having fussed with sugar and cream while he fussed with lemon and cream for his tea) and when we were both adequately seen to, the Dean spoke.
“Jim,” he said in his oh-so-sophisticated Tidewater accent (if you aren't familiar with the Tidewater Accent—coastal Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina—you don't understand that it is exactly the accent a Dean of Virginia Seminary should have). “Jim, I am very distressed with your criticism of me in the last issue of the Ambo,” is what he said. His accent made my name sound like “gi-um” and both 'distressed' and “criticism” seemed to have gained a syllable as well. But it is a mesmerizing sound, soothing and soft and sophisticated in the way that mint juleps and magnolias and the architecture of Monticello is sophisticated.
“Dean,” I said in an accent that he would recognize as Appalachian, coal-miner son, trailer-trash, hillbilly, “I wasn't criticizing you, I was criticizing the Seminary.”
He took a delicate sip of his tea. Then he said words, though in one of the most delightful of all American accents, that chilled me to the bones and sinews.
“Jim,” he said slowly, “I AM Virginia Seminary.” Then he went on to explain how such a seeming impossibility could be so.
The accent was lulling me into sleep or compliance. It was like the 'Turkish taffy' the White Witch offered the children who went to Narnia. I was a stranger in a strange land. I put my almost full cup of coffee down on the little table between our two wing chairs. I reached over, interrupting him, to shake his hand.
“Dean,” I said, standing up, moving toward the door of his office, “I'll never do it again. I promise you that.”
Something I know to the depths of my being is this: never try to reason or argue with a man who thinks he's a seminary or any other major institution, for that matter.

David Scott
Speaking of 'reading courses', I wanted to have one for the last semester of my Senior year. I didn't want to take four classes, as was expected and required. I even had a topic. I wanted to write a paper about the theology of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. I took my ideas to the usual suspects—the people I thought would buy into my getting out of a class. None of them wanted any part of it, more I think, because they only vaguely knew who Kurt Vonnegut was than because they didn't think it might be an interesting topic. Finally, I asked David Scott, one of the most conservative of the members of the faculty. And much to my surprise (probably his too) he agreed although he didn't even 'vaguely' know who Kurt Vonnegut was!
So David read five of Vonnegut's novels just so he could talk with me about the writer's 'theology'. Then he read my rather lengthy final paper. I wish I had a copy of it except I almost certainly remember it as more insightful, ground-breaking and brilliant than it actually was....
Here's the thing: a teacher who is willing to read five novels he would have never otherwise read in order to teach and evaluate a student's work—well, I don't know what is more committed to education than that. Reminds me of the character from the Canterbury Tales who would 'gladly learn and gladly teach'. Though we didn't agree on much of anything (besides, eventually, that Vonnegut was a very theological writer!), David Scott won my heart.
(Once in an ethics class, David suggested that masturbation could lead to loss of fine motor skills and most every student in the room dropped their pencils. Even though that actually happened, David had my heart. And God bless his....)

Fighting with Fitz
Fitzsimmons Allison was even more conservative than David Scott. When he left VTS it was to become Rector of St. James in Manhattan, the quintessential 'low church' of New York City. Then he became Bishop of South Carolina. If you know anything about the Episcopal Church, you realize being Bishop of South Carolina is theologically akin to being a bishop in the Global South. South Carolina rather redefines 'conservative' in the Episcopal Church. Fitz was the only other member of the staff besides the Dean who objected to my comparison of the front door of Aspenwall Hall and the theology of St. Paul to my preference for a door that would open easily and the theology to be derived from the accounts of Peter in the gospels.
We began to exchange opinions in the pages of the Ambo. I still have, somewhere, copies of what I wrote and what Fitz wrote in reply and what I wrote in reply to his reply and what he wrote in reply to my reply to his reply. Just like the previous sentence, all of our writings were rather discombobulated and not very interesting. It certainly wasn't up to what a debate between Calvin and Luther might have been like! It was a smart-ass student and an equally, though better educated, smart-ass professor throwing bricks at each others' glass houses. I'm too embarrassed about how lame my words and arguments were to even share them with you. I'm sure, from the perspective of all these years, Fitz would feel the same.
What our disagreement boiled down to was a vastly different view of 'human nature'. But isn't that always so in debates between the right and the left, conservatives and liberals, or, as we now call them in the Episcopal Church—Orthodox and Progressive. I was (and am) of the theological persuasion that we human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and just a little lower than the angels. Fitz contended that the whole point of the 'Fall' was true and human beings, not bound by rules, doctrine and dogma were not much above odious little vermin. I exaggerate both our positions, but you get the point.
I had suggested that a seminary with a 'high view' of human nature—which, coming from a Pilgrim Holiness background, I considered 'distinctly Anglican'--wouldn't need grades because everyone, for the love of learning and enlightened self-interest, would work just as hard without the threat of grades. Fitz contended that just because some people might indeed 'not need grades', the flotsam and jetsam of the student body wouldn't do anything but mess around and not study if there weren't grades to keep them in line.
Well, you can see from that little exchange that our debate wasn't a dialog of Plato. We eventually agreed to disagree, but I look back and thank him both for arguing with me and giving me credit by considering me a worthy opponent for argument.
I still believe I'm right about the being of human beings. Given all the considerations and pains and suffering of life, most people are better than we could otherwise expect them to be. Fits eventually left the Episcopal Church to be part of the movement associated with the ultra-orthodox theology of the Anglican Communion's Global South. So, true to form, he still believed he was right too.
What his gift to me was is the knowledge that people of vastly different views CAN agree to disagree and respect each other in the midst of their disagreements. There's not enough of that around these days in the church, or, for that matter, in the country or in the world. Respecting the integrity of you avowed opponent changes the playing field, makes it a place of honor rather than bitterness and unrequited anger.
As I said, there's not enough of that around these days, anywhere.

Jess, dear Jess
Jess Trotter was the dearest man you can ever imagine—probably more 'dear' than you have imagined or could imagine. He was a deeply spiritual Christian, a social activist of no mean repute and a father or grandfather figure to us all. He was my field work colloquium leader. Field work (which I did for two years at Christ Church, Capitol Hill) was a major part of the theological education at VTS when I was there. I pray it still is. Field work—actually being present to a real life parish or a ministry setting while in seminary—is the anchor that holds a theological education to this world and keeps the students from drifting off into an oh, so fascinating alternative reality of 'God Talk' devoid of what is so in the actual world. In my time as a parish priest, I have supervised 21 seminarians in their field work. Although those 21 young men and women taught me much more than I ever could have taught them about anything, I was responsible for grounding them in the 'real world' of church while they were still comfortably and safely ensconced in the womb that is a Seminary.
There is a great deal I could tell you about Jess. He was a priest and a man who had known great personal suffering. And unlike most suffering—which is mindless and nonsensical—the suffering Jess knew actually was salvific, actually made him a better man, a better priest, a better friend and guide. But beyond all that, he was as wise as a Buddhist Master, as learn-ed as a medieval scholastic, as kind as a loving mother, as gentle as a spring breeze in Alexandria, Virginia. Jess was a mentor, friend and brother to all the seminarians who fell under his spell. I would have sailed the North Atlantic in February if he told me to. I would even go into Washington D.C. And sit on the steps of St. Paul's K Street for two hours and look every person who passed in the eyes if he told me to.
Actually, it was that last thing—sitting on K Street, making eye contact with every person who passed that he suggested to me that I do. “And when you look at them,” he instructed me, “say to yourself these words, 'that is the One Christ died for', and if you can, begin to believe it.”
It is astonishing to me that I have had eleven years of education beyond high school. Eleven years of study, four degrees, and I all of that, the most valuable and useful lesson I learned took place in a two hour span, sitting on some steps of a church on K Street in Washington, D. C. on a May afternoon when I looked hundreds of people in the eye—members of Congress perhaps, federal workers, lawyers and doctors, clerks and secretaries, an insurance agent, several police officers, military folks in uniform, a mail carrier, delivery people, students, children, street people, illegal aliens, drug dealers, a prostitute or two I imagine, people black and brown and white and Asian, people who worked in the embassies around the city, harried mothers, people cheating on their spouses, the unemployed, the elderly, the infirm, people on crutches and in wheel chairs, rich people and poor people, people with every hue of hair and curl and people with no hair at all, a veritable panoply of the wanderers on the earth that is the human race. And each one I saw, I told myself, “this is the one, the very one, for whom Christ died.” I said that so many times, with such hope that I would believe it, that I came to understand the deeper Truth Jess was teaching in his gentle, unassuming way—each face I saw was, in a way beyond all believing, a Face of God.

I owe so many people—many of whom I haven't mentioned—so much from those years at Harvard and VTS. So many to whom I owe so much. But none more probably or more profoundly than I owe Jess.
To this day, like it or not (and often I don't like it!) I cannot look another human being in the eye and not say “This is the One—the very One—for whom Christ died”. And, because I realized what the point of the exercise was, finally, I know each face I see is, without doubt, one of the myriad faces of God, Charlie's God and Jess' God.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The end of summer....

The Cleveland Indians won tonight, eliminating the Yankees from the post season. Now I was a Yankee fan during the horrible 70's and 80's. I am no stranger to not being in the post season.

But with Mo retiring and Andy retiring and so much injury this year the Yankees were like an ER, Jeter, Granderson, Texiera and ARod hurt most of the year--and worse than that for ARod.

They have to lose from time to time. Baseball is that weird game  where if you only succeed 3 times out of 10 you're a star. A sport without a clock. A diamond in a sea of green. Lots of angles. The game of summer.

And for me, with the Yankees out, summer is over.

(Did I ever tell you why I--a boy from southern West Virginia--am a Yankee fan? Probably, but it's a story worth another telling....)

My father was in NYC, waiting to ship out to Europe and WWII. The city couldn't do enough for the soldiers who were going to go and risk their lives for the USA. So my father and some of his friends got tickets to a Yankees/Dodgers World Series game. My Dad decided that whichever team won that game would be 'his team'...and by inheritance, his son's 'team'.

And the Yankees won.

That, back in the 40's of the last century is why Summer Ended for me today.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Something missing....

I have over the years come to embrace three questions my friend Ann taught me to take stock of things.

I have used these three questions to guide vestries toward a vision, to evaluate employees, to figure out why I'm feeling out of sorts, to help people get above their confusion, lots of things.

Here are the three questions.




Ann's questions free us from useless conversations about Right/Wrong, Good/Bad. Blame/Guilt, all that yucky and ultimately unhelpful stuff.

The questions are about functionality.

WHAT WORKS? Things tend to either work or not. There is no judgement or morals or values involved in naming the 'working' stuff of life.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK? Same thing--no judgement involved--it isn't 'what's wrong?' There's actually nothing 'wrong' about stuff that doesn't work. It simply doesn't serve us well and, like a pen out of ink (one thing that 'doesn't work') all we have to do it throw it away or stop trying to make it work when it won't.

WHAT'S MISSING? This is the question that opens the way to Ah-Ha moments, to transformation, (not change...we usually try to 'change' stuff that doesn't work and make it work. That's a dead end.) The more things 'change', we all know, the more they 'stay the same'. Change is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic--it makes you feel busy but they're going to end up on the bottom of the North Atlantic no matter how they are positions.

Asking 'What's Missing?' opens up the box where all the new possibilities are, where creation lives, where transformation can occur. "What's missing?" doesn't allow us to reconcile ourselves to what IS, it gives us permission to create something new ex nilio--'out of nothing', the way 'creation' works. And we create, interestingly enough, by 'saying so'. In the beginning was the Word....And God 'said'....

I want to engage the Cluster churches I share in a conversation about the future. Asking 'what's wrong?' or 'what's bad?' is a more than useless exercise. People will get all caught up in the wrong-ness and bad-ness of everything and never get to a place where they can 'create a future that wouldn't happen anyway.'

That's another thing I've learned from knowing my friend Ann--there are, in reality, two distinct and different Futures. There is the Future that will happen anyway if we just wait until it shows up. But there is also the Future we can create that wouldn't happen anyway.

It all comes down to this--do we want to be 'at cause' or 'at effect' in life? We can have a 'say' in the Future we create. The Future that's going to happen anyway, if we just wait for it, is going to make us mute and hapless and without possibility.

So ponder this about your life: What works? What doesn't work? What's missing?

Ponder that for a time....

Monday, September 23, 2013

Late at night

Late at night--though not that late--and I long for bed.

I am often awake late at night.
Sleep is something I love,
long for, adore.

I seldom, if ever have nightmares,
but I sleep near to the surface of wakefulness.

My dreams are most often mundane,
me working at some task,
succeeding but not knowing how.

In 13 days I fly to Ireland
to lead a workshop,
or, more accurately, to coach
three women to lead it themselves.

I have been to Ireland many times
to be a part of the workshop.
This time, I might leave people there
who can lead it without my help.

Like a task I work at in a dream,
and succeed without knowing how.

Ireland is so green it is almost painful.
Like a dream about 'green'
which is a job I have to do
and accomplish without knowing how.

Or why.

Not long now and I'll be abed,
waiting for dreams
that come or not.

Either way,
I'll be grateful.

Friday, September 20, 2013

These are the days

These are the days I live for and love so--those days when the night temperature in 25 degrees cooler than the high in the day. 50 F tonight and 75 F tomorrow. What I love is to wear a sweater and shorts in the same 24 hours.

Sleep is easy, profound and full of wondrous dreams when the temperature falls to 50 after being in the high 70's that day. Windows are always open. Air conditioners are mute and needless. The night temperature keeps the house cool even in the 70's in the next afternoon.

I have this memory about growing up in the mountains of southern West Virginia. We were almost as far south as Richmond, Virginia, but we were much higher up. My memory is that, because of the altitude and the mountains, Spring and Autumn were 4 months each and Summer and Winter were two months each.

Spring an Autumn have those 25 degree swings. Summer and Winter don't. It just seems to me that in the mountains Spring and Autumn hung on and on, reluctant to let go to what came next.

Oh, it was hot there--HOT--and no one had air-conditioning. And it was cold there--oh, so COLD--and snow out the gazoo. But neither lasted long enough to have you begin to pine for something else. By the time you got tired of Winter's cold and snow, Spring had snuck in a month sooner than expected and 65 in the day and 45 in the night became the norm. And when Summer had begun to wilt you, Autumn made itself known and it was a 72/50 mix of day and night.

I'd never live in southern West Virginia again. It would be too depressing. The county I grew up in had 70,000 inhabitants in 1950. Today, it has 27,000. It is a 'ghost county' the size of Rhode Island. Plus, Right Wing crazies have taken over the state. In the Democratic Primary in 2012, a inmate of an Oklahoma prison got over 25% of the vote against President Obama. I kid you not, look it up.

But though I'd never live there, I remember this. That was the perfect climate. All four seasons but the two bad ones shortened and the two loved ones lengthened.

That's what I remember.

These nights like tonight would go on for four months back in McDowell County....

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Another chance...

Sunday I'll be talking with Rowena Kemp about working with the Cluster. She is a new deacon who, hopefully will be ordained a priest in December. She is brilliant, thoughtful, cautious and dynamic. I can't wait to work with her.

One of the most important things I've done as a priest is be a supervisor of seminarians, interns and deacons. Almost 40 altogether. I don't try to 'form' them in any way. I simply try to draw out of the the skills and talents and gifts they bring to ministry. For the most part, I believe, I've done that with some grace and humility. There are people all over the church now who worked with me and with my rather odd style of supervision.

My odd style is this: I ask more questions than I answer, I listen more than I talk, And I don't much care about how well they 'do' what they 'do'. My concern is 'who they BE as priests. Most of the people I've 'supervised'--and that's such a strange word for who I am for them--can already 'do' all the things a priest 'does'. They just  need practice. But what I want to tease out of them is 'who they BE' in the matter of their priesthood. I want them to 'BE' in a way that matters, a way that makes a difference to the people they serve.

One of those folks I've worked with once said to me, "either you have no ego or an ego the size of Montana." Truth is, I have an ego the size of Canada, not Montana.

I don't have 'ego problems', I have an ego too large for problems. I wrote a few days ago about how much I 'like' myself. That is a function of having a Canada-sized ego. Nothing much bothers me or throws me off my game or threatens me. If you asked priests around the Diocese of Connecticut to describe me in one word (those who know me) it would be something like 'unconventional', 'calm', 'opinionated' and 'laid back'. To be calm and laid back which still being opinionated requires a surplus of ego. To be 'laid back' in the midst of parish ministry requires an ego the size of Canada.

I just don't 'care'. Oh, I am super involved and compassionate and 'present'. Anytime I've said "I don't care" about matters of ministry people have rightly rebuked me. What I mean by "I don't care" is that I can be detached enough not to be part of the 'drama' of church life. I'm always 'interested' and 'intrigued' by the drama of 'church life' but it mostly doesn't entangle me.

So, what I want folks I supervise to lean into is how to 'be present' in the chaos that is often church life in a way that makes a difference and matters and brings presence and calm and healing.

That's what matters to me. It has not always been so. I used to become an actor in church dramas. But no more. I am a member of the audience who has, because of my role and my ontological presence, an opportunity to be 'present', to 'be', in a way that matters and sorts things out and makes a difference.

Now Rowena gives me another chance to interact and question and 'be' with her in a way that might  empower her as a priest to 'be priest' in the midst of both the mundane and chaotic moments of the life of the church.

I've probably posted this chapter of stuff I've been writing since I retired. But I'm going to do it again anyway....

Job Descriptions

A seminary classmate of mine who was also a priest in West Virginia when I was there was once riding an airplane from Los Angeles to Chicago. My friend, let’s call him Joe, was wearing, as he seemingly always did, a clerical collar and black shirt, black suit and black wing-tips. Joe is a very large man so his priest outfit always made him look like a black-out curtain from the London Blitz. He spent the flight talking amiably with salesman from the mid-west. They developed one of those airplane friendships and exchanged business cards as the descent began toward O’Hare. Just as the 747 was taxiing up to the gate, Joe’s new friend asked, “What do you do?”
Joe glanced down to make sure his uniform was in place—and hadn’t they talked about the church somewhere over Idaho?
“I’m an Episcopal priest,” Joe replied, confused.
The salesman smiled. “Oh, I know what you are,” he said, “I was just wondering what you do.”
It is an interesting observation and question. What on earth does an Episcopal priest do? How can we describe a role that I believe is more ontological than functional? What’s the job description?
Once, at a cocktail party in New Haven, surrounded by Yale ‘people’—the population of New Haven is divided between Yale ‘people’ and the masses of the unwashed—I had a long conversation with a physicist from India with one of those delightful post-Raj English accents that sound like a bird’s song. You hear that accent most every time you call customer services (aka “help!”) for your computer—they all seem to be in India. Since I didn’t have on a clerical uniform—and never once flew in an airplane with a collar on lest I be seated besides some psychologically disturbed stranger who wanted to confess at 40,000 feet—I had told him when we greeted each other what I ‘did’. And he told me what he ‘did’. It’s what people do.
(Here’s a fascinating thing: back in the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up, when people met for the first time, the question that came trippingly off each of their tongues was “where are you from?” not “what do you do?” I haven’t asked enough people who grew up in rural places if that was true back home to know if it is purely an urban/rural distinction. But I know and know fair well that back home you could tell a lot more about a stranger by knowing where they were from and “who their people were” than you could by finding out how they earned their money. I still have the tendency to ask people where they spent their formative years, believing as I do that there is a wealth of instant knowledge and intimacy in discovering someone’s roots. But, in the place I live now and amidst the people I know now, the first question is almost always, “What do you do?”)
So I told the Indian physicist that I was an Episcopal priest and he asked me with the guilelessness of someone who was ‘from’ a place half-a-world away and who was Hindu if he was anything religious at all, what my ‘work’ consisted of.
Even then, I had begun to believe that being a priest is an ontological rather than a functional thing, so I fished around in my brain for some way to describe succinctly what my “being” in the midst of a parish looked like. I came up with a thought that I’d stand by today. “I am a member of a community,” I told him, “and I function as the leader of that community in our ritual life. And I am very aware of what is going on in and around the community so that when I think I see God breaking in to the day-to-day, I can say ‘Stop! Look! There’s God’….”
He considered that in that lovely, calm and timeless way people from the Indian sub-continent have naturally, took a sip of wine and then said, smiling knowingly, “You’re a process observer.”
He, of course, had to explain to an English major that a ‘process observer’ was an indispensable role in the sciences. Much of what science is about is watching experiments and noting what happens. It is, he told me, rather tedious and painstaking work (not unlike the day-to-day ‘duties’ of a parish priest) but finally indispensable to the march of scientists to the day when they will have the String Theory down pat—the theory that explains just about everything.
“A process observer”, I said to myself, giving that little voice in my head a line to speak of my composition instead of just listening to it chatter on of its own volition. I rather liked it, yes I did.
The actuality is this: one of the things parish priests DO, it seems to me, is “point to God in the process.” We do it in the Eucharist—all the sacraments—in a most obvious way. “You may think this is just fish food and bad port, priests say in the Mass, but I’m going to ‘point out’ to you that this is ALSO the very Body and very Blood of Christ. How about them apples?” Or, like this: “You may imagine this is just a little baby and some water and some oil, but I’m going to reveal to you a different way of looking at all this…a way that brings to mind the Creation and the Exodus and John the Baptist and Jesus and the oil of anointing a royal child and the fact that this squirming little creature is actually the most loved Child of God.” Or this, for example: “I know everyone here believes you are simply a man and a woman anxious to get dinner over and shed these clothes and do what men and women do in the dark, wine-soaked night. But I tell you a Mystery—you are beloved of God and God approves, blesses and watches over you. Go after each other with passion and zeal, it is as the Almighty has arranged it!” Stuff like that is what priests “do”. Process observing—seeking to un-conceal the oldest String Theory of them all: that God is in control in some way we cannot recognize or even understand.
Once, a few years ago, the remarkable Organist/Choir Director of St. John’s—the finest musician I’ve ever known who doesn’t have a big, fat attitude—found a Spiritual he thought I would like, knowing I’m partial to Spirituals. It was called I Believe This Is Jesus and went like this: “I believe this is Jesus….Come and see, Come and see….” Bob’s idea was that I would, after the fracture of the host, sing the “I believe this is Jesus” part and the choir would respond, “Come and see. Come and see” and then do the rest of the song while I administered communion to those at the altar. Great idea—real ‘process observer’ stuff…I’d break the bread and then indicate the bread and wine and sing, “I believe this is Jesus.”
So, without telling anyone but the choir, that’s what we did. I broke the bread, took a deep breath since I’m rocky about my singing ability, then broke into song. When the choir responded, “Come and see. Come and see.” I did something like point to the bread and wine and sing along, shifting from foot to foot, remembering why I loved Spirituals—you can’t stand still and sing them. I turned to give communion to the others at the altar—including the assistant Rector and our Parish Administrator—and they were all staring at me as if I were a crazy person just escaped from the sanatorium with sharp, deadly weapons. After I force fed them the bread and wine—fattening up the Christmas goose—they nearly dissolved into that kind of laughter that there is simply no way, no way in heaven and earth, no act of will available to human beings to repress. The “I believe this is Jesus” Mass passed immediately into St. John’s lore. We still laugh about it—others laughing more than me since I was just ‘process observing’ and ‘reporting’—and I can still do it. I’ll do it for you if you ask me nicely.
I have this ongoing conversation with my bishop and others about ontology and function and what a priest “does”. I come down hard on the “being” side of the distinction. I actually think a priest’s job description is to ‘be’ in the midst of the community. The functional stuff is neither rocket science or brain surgery. In fact, most everything a priest does—since we are the last of the ‘generalists’—someone else could do much better. Say Mass, for example—I’d suggest training in theatre would make for a more dramatic Eucharist than studying Theology ever could. Visiting the sick, another example—couldn’t a nurse or social worker pull that off with great aplomb? Teaching adult classes—well, give me someone trained in education every day to someone who can recite the Nicene Creed by heart. Counseling the troubled—a seminary education makes you a ‘counselor’ as much as a class in auto mechanics makes you a jet pilot. Parish priests, if they took my advice, would avoid counseling like the plague and get a rolodex full of references. I can ‘listen’ to someone’s problems but I seldom, if ever, do I know an answer. I actually get ‘hung up’ in the problems, find them fascinating and probably wouldn’t want them to go away. Call a real professional, that’s my advice to a parish priest!
So, here I am, trying to describe “what I do” when the reality I deal with tells me that being a priest is much more about ‘being’ than ‘doing’. I have this argument with my bishop and lots of colleagues that will go on and on. I truly think that priesthood is about ontology, about ‘being’, much more than it is about ‘doing’ or the function we fulfill in the Church of God. This obviously is a result of my remarkably high view of the sacraments. I believe ‘being a priest’ is contained and fully lived out in the ‘being’ part. What I “do”—like talk to the leader of the Narcotics Anonymous group that uses St. John’s on Tuesday mornings about how most of the folks in that group—unlike the other 12 step groups that use the space—are ‘court ordered’ and there to score some dope and don’t give a good god-damn about the fact that there are other people in the building—the soup kitchen, the office staff, the clericus group, a meeting of a diocesan committee, just plain folks coming in and out to ask for help or tell us something or just check in with the staff. And never mind that there are sometimes funerals on Tuesday morning and receptions in the Library after the funeral and that we need some level of quiet and respect in the building. And then I have to deal with the email from the leader promising to ‘fix’ the problems if they can only, only, please, please, continue to use the meeting space. And I have to deal with the countless ‘drop-ins’ looking for a bus ticket or a meal or a motel room or something even beyond all that. I can refer most of them to the social worker in the soup kitchen but I have to talk with them and get enmeshed in their stories along the way, before sending them to someone who might actually be able to help them. And I attend endless meetings—in the parish and without—to deal with endless issues and come up not knowing our elbows from our assholes most of the time. And there are statistics to keep in a big red book about what we’ve done in terms of services. And there are budget matters to be addressed—can we buy this or pay for that…stuff I never got taught in Seminary. And there is the eternal ‘planning’ for things that are going to happen or not in the parish. And there are meetings…oh, I already mentioned that, but there are so many that it seems to require a second mention. And did I tell you about the parking lot and making sure the rented spaces are used by those who rented them and the dozens of people who come through the church each day aren’t in some lawyer’s space? I don’t do all of that, but I fret about it.
Most of the day-to-day stuff I do is fretting about something or another. And, in most cases, there are about three billion people who could fret about those things and be more effective than me. So, what do I DO? I’m not sure, not at all. My “doing” of stuff seems in many ways a bit crazy. And the source of great fretting and anxiety.
Here’s the quintessential Jewish joke, my friend, John, told it to me today. An e-mail arrives. “Start worrying,” it says, “letter to follow.”
I’m always ‘worrying’ about my ‘doing’…but I truly subscribe to the notion that ‘doing’ isn’t what being a priest is all about. What being a priest is all about is exactly that—“being” a priest.
You want to know the thing I hear most from parishioners of St. John’s? Here it is: “I didn’t want to bother you, I know how busy you are….”
My theory is that either we priests have created “busy-ness” out of nothing or else we are so deluded as to think that the nonsense we use to fill our days and make us feel like we’re ‘doing’ something has overcome the glaring reality that we are ordained to ‘be’, not to ‘do’. Back in 2000 when I visited 37 of my Virginia Seminary classmates, one of them—a guy who was only with us for a year and who had been a RC priest before he married a woman with five children—told me that he was pleased to have left VTS and gone to a parish where he had remained for 25 years. “I’ve been here long enough,” he told me, “so that people accept the fact that ‘being a priest’ is the only job in the world that is focused on ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’.”
What a thought—a whole career path focused on “being” rather than “doing”! And what a pity that people think I’m busy and shouldn’t be bothered by their petty concerns and wonderings and questions and longings. That is, in fact, precisely what my job entails, to be free and available and ready to “be” with people whenever they need that from me. I don’t suggest that my ‘being’ will “save them” or “heal them” or do anything much more than simply ‘being’ with them in their joy or confusion or pain or loss or wonderment. There is a wonderful term in psychology—the “non-anxious presence.” Therapists long to provide that service for their clients—just to ‘be’ with them, whatever is going on, without anxiety. A calming presence is what most of us need when ‘stuff’ is happening in our lives. We just need someone to “be” there—at our death bed, in labor hall, in the ER, when we’re troubled and confused, at the celebrations of the transforming moments of our lives. Just that—a shadow in the background who is simply “there” without attaching themselves to the emotions and feelings of the moment—that is what most of us need, most of the time. And that is, so far as I can see, how a priest can “be” in the midst of the community he/she serves.
I have done what used to be called “EST training”. Almost all ‘religious folks’ think EST was mind-control and a monstrous intrusion into the life of those who submitted themselves to it. I am still involved in a group—The Mastery Foundation—that continues the work EST began. The Mastery Foundation is the religious spin-off of EST and I have been a leader of the Making a Difference Workshop for almost 20 years now. I took that workshop when I was considering renouncing my vows as a priest and what I came out of the three days with was my priesthood all new and shiny. The Workshop is ‘ontological’—it is about ‘being’, not ‘doing’. And back over a quarter of a century ago, when I was in an EST workshop, I called to tell them I couldn’t come to the second weekend because a beloved parishioner of St. Paul’s (the parish I served at that time) was dying and I had to be with him. The workshop leaders gave me much grief—understandable grief but grief none the less—about my ‘commitment’ to the workshop and what if I’d gotten hit by a truck, who would be with Aaron, who would be his priest then? But I rejected all the arguments they threw at me—some of it reasonable b.s., but b.s. all the same—and went to visit Aaron when I should have been in my chair at the EST training.
Aaron was in a coma and I couldn’t “do” much of anything. I couldn’t give him communion or talk with him or reassure him as he was slipping into that good night. So, after 15 minutes or so, I left his room, having anointed him and given him final unction—I could “do” that, after all. I rode the elevator to the lobby and was unlocking my car when I remembered the first weekend of the EST training and the emphasis on “being” that I had learned there. So I went back to the elevator and rode back up to the 5th floor and entered Aaron’s room again. I sat by his bed for over two hours. From time to time I would read a psalm from my Prayer Book aloud, but mostly for me, since he wasn’t in my time/space continuum. And after two hours I kissed his 88 year old face and headed for the door.
At that very moment, he awoke momentarily from the coma of his last sleep and said, with the basso voice I’d known from him before this illness, “Jim, thanks for BEING with me….”
It never occurred to me in that moment to “do” anything. I didn’t rush to his bedside and give him communion. I didn’t open my BCP and say a prayer. I only said, “You’re welcome, Aaron.” And I left. Three days later I was the celebrant and preacher at his funeral. I had done my job. I had “be-ed” with him. That was what he needed and all that I could do.
Actually, I do have a definition of the job description of a priest. I’ve used it in a couple of ordination sermons that did not get me in trouble and I think I would bet the farm on it being—if not RIGHT—at least in the county where RIGHT lives. Here’s how it goes: the ‘job’ of a priest is simply this: to tend the fire, tell the story and pass the wine.
A parish priest has an enormous amount of discretionary time—don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. And that time should be spent being the Shaman of the Tribe. I really believe the metaphor of the Shaman is the once we priests should embrace. We walk backward and sideways, we speak words our mouths are unfit for, we do the holy acts and we dwell in the “being” of our being in the midst of the tribe. We are irrelevant except in moments when we are relevant. We wait with the expectant father, we sit by the sick bed, we pour water on the babies, we whisper nonsense syllables over bread and wine, we light the candles, we tell and re-tell the story of our tribe in old ways and ways made new, we anoint the sick and dying, we rejoice with the joyous, we are there when one of the tribe moves into that Good Night, we pour dirt on the casket, we unite the lovers, we sit and wait and are not anxious whatever is happening. Shamans are the role we can play in the Tribe who loves us and we love to death.
So, we tend the fire. Everyone else is too busy in the tides and times of living to pay attention. The priest must add the green branch to the dying fire and blow on it until it takes and burns. The priest must know the history of the Tribe and breathe it into the fire as the fire turns to embers. We are the fire-tenders, the wood gatherers, the ones who choose between the green wood and the seasoned. That is who we “are” and how we “be” in the midst on the Tribe.
We also “tell the story”. It is a story everyone in the Tribe knows, on some level, in some way. So the way we tell it must annoy and inspire and provoke. It is the story of our particular tribe and of the larger tribe we are a part of. It is the story of a God who created us in the very image of God and of a God who took on our flesh and a God who died, as we shall die, yet rose from death to prove to us that Life is the last word, the ultimate word, the only word that matters. So we tell this story with mouths full of pebbles and in halting, stuttering words and with an eloquence we neither deserve nor can rise to, except the Spirit leads us. We tell the story as the tribe sits by the fire we tend and we watch their eyes…heavy and full of sleep, confused and questioning, brimming with tears. It is always the eyes we much watch—those subtle pathways to the soul—as we tell the story in old ways, often heard, and in new ways to surprise and delight and confound. We have tended the fire and told the story.
What is left is this—to pass the wine.
Whenever I do baptismal classes, I bring out the symbols that will be a part of the service: bread, wine, water, oil, a candle and the scallop shell I use to pour the water. Sometimes I mix people up so they’re not with their baptismal group, and give them one of the symbols to talk about and report back to the whole group about after talking. I’m always interested in the report back about wine. We are a part of a remarkably Puritanical culture where wine is not openly valued. And of course, I know, church basements and parish halls are full each week with AA meetings—there is a downside to wine. But my thought has always been that the ‘value’ of something can be measured most accurately by how much it has been misused and abused. Oh, take Christianity for example: what shit we Christians have left on innocent yards! The Christian faith has been so misused and abused that it must be of great value—the value of pearls and gold and silver.
Most of the groups who report back on wine don’t fully emphasize the joy and gladness and goodness of alcohol. They seldom reflect on why it is we call alcohol “spirits”. They don’t have the courage to be politically incorrect in our day and say wine is a good and gracious thing. Never has any group reported back by saying, “In Vino, Veritas”. So I have to tell them how valued and important the wine is to the tribe and those gathered by the fire, listening to the story. Invaluable, I’d say—that’s what wine is to the life and metaphor and myth of the Tribe. There must be wine to make us mellow and accepting and to “inspire” us and to bring the story to full bloom and to make the dying fire look like a wondrous and warming blaze that enlightens the darkness all around us.
So, the priest passes the wine.
None of those ‘functions’, those ‘tasks’, those ‘acts’ require ordination—that I would tell you before you said it out loud. Just about anyone could tend the fire and tell the story and pass the wine. But in our Tribe, at any rate, we have decided that there must be someone ‘set apart’ for those acts, those rituals, those liturgies. So we ordain priests and entrust them with the work of “being” in our midst to ‘do’ these little, so significant tasks. The Shamans of the Tribe walk backwards, speak in nonsense syllables and touch the holy things.
A dear friend, the wife of a classmate of mine in seminary, told my wife that when her husband was ordained, “his hands changed.”
My wife, God bless her, said she hadn’t noticed that my hands had changed but she did like to feel them on her body.
Here is the conundrum about being a priest: nothing changes. It isn’t the ordination that matters, it is the willingness to simple “be” when all the world is “doing” that makes a priest different, set apart, unique. Her/his hands don’t change, not a chance, that’s just an illusion. What happens, so far as I can tell is simply this: some sap decides to “be” rather than “do”. And the church applauds.
Truth is, it’s a great job—process observing, tending the fire, telling the story over and over again, passing the wine. What’s the down-side of that? Just don’t take yourself too seriously or confuse yourself with Jesus or decide you can save the world or anyone in it—keep to the job description: observe the process, keep the fire burning, tell and retell the story, take a good sip of wine before passing it around, figure out how to “be” rather than “do”.
Well, it’s worked for 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.