Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Chapter 4 of 'Tend the Fire, Tell the Story, Pass the Wine"

4. Father Dodge and Hot Stuff

    When I arrived at St. James, the congregation was being served by Fr. Bill Dodge, a retired school teacher who was a Title IX priest. Title nine is a strange little piece of canon law sometimes referred to as 'the old man's  canon'--though to be politically correct it should now be known as 'the old wo/man's' (if it's not 'ageism' to call people 'old'). Episcopal Church law is more strict about ordination than most denominations; however, Title IX is an 'out', a way around the rules and process for those late in life who feel called to priesthood. If the Church determines the call is legitimate (whatever that means!), the candidate is allowed to study privately, usually with a near-by priest or group of priests, take a seminary class or two if one is near, and be tested after the term of study is fulfilled.

          That's what Fr. Dodge had done. He'd became a priest through the back door. When I was newly ordained, after four years of theological study and two (count 'em—two) Master level degrees, I had little patience with Title IX priests and even less for Fr. Dodge. He was in his 70's and, to my exalted standards, not up to snuff. But I was going to be a deacon for a year and needed someone to help me liturgically. Deacon's Masses, which are weird both theologically and as liturgy, would serve from time to time, but I thought the congregation deserved a 'real' Mass at least monthly and Fr. Dodge was the best I could find. Plus, for reasons beyond my comprehension, the parishioners seemed to have a deep affection for him and were always happy to see him. It wouldn't have been astute of me to get rid of the old codger since I needed him and the parish wouldn't like it.

          (It is embarrassing and humbling to read what I just wrote! I  thought of myself as such 'hot stuff' in those days. I was God's gift to St. James Church and the world-wide Anglican Communion as well. At least that's what I thought. The truth is, looking back, I was brash, arrogant and unkind almost all the time. Hot Stuff, indeed!)

          In addition, I considered myself a liturgical genius—the be all and end all when it came to ritual and celebration. But the fact was that I'd spent four years at Harvard and Virginia, neither of which has any claim to teaching liturgical practice. Worship at HDS began with Unitarian politeness and didn't go much further or deeper. Actually, any resemblance to 'Christian', much less Anglican worship was totally accidental. A typical chapel service at Harvard would include—in no particular order—readings from the Koran or Hindu scripture, a little jazz played by my friend Don or other musical students, some silent meditation and the singing of some of the hymns of Hildegard of Bingham. The Archbishop of Canterbury would have been horrified! The closest thing to a Eucharistic I remember was when Rabbi Katzenstein brought some matzos, Harvey Cox talked about the religious symbolism of sharing food and we all went up and took a piece for ourselves. I loved it, felt I was in on the forefront of liturgical renewal.

          Virginia Seminary, when I was there, was fiercely Low Church. That meant that worship was restrained, proper and in good order. No Popish nonsense would be allowed to infect the purity of Protestant Episcopal worship. One of the lame jokes we often told was this: “You know what streaking is at VTS? Running through the chapel in a chasuble!” There was a lot of controversy when I was there because candles had been added to the 'communion table'. Candles made some of the faculty nervous. You shouldn't open the door to 'catholic' practice—first some candles and then (gasp!) incense and the adoration of the blessed sacrament.

          The high mass Reginald Fuller did was all I knew about Anglo-Catholic worship when I arrived at St. James. Fr. Dodge, I have to admit, seemed to know when to cross himself and genuflect (which I couldn't do without nearly falling on my face). St. James, like most African-American parishes, had been founded in a rich High Church tradition that disappeared when the first white priest came to be their Vicar. So, one good reason for keeping Fr. Dodge around was so I could figure out how to celebrate in a way that was Anglo-Catholic in a mirror dimly. So, those times I'd let him come and celebrate, I'd watch him out of the corner of my eye to try to find a pattern to his movements.

    The problem was, Fr. Dodge didn't seem to follow any discernible pattern. I came to believe that if he ever knew what he was doing, he'd forgotten how and was crossing himself at random places in the service. Even though I didn't know how to celebrate a real mass, I resented him for not knowing how. And that wasn't the end of my complaints about him. His hands shook when he elevated the host and chalice, sometimes spilling wine on the fair linen. He'd lose his place and I'd have to prompt him with a stage whisper several times during the service. He mispronounced words all the time. Several times, rather than “in your infinite love” he said, “in your INFANT love”! I mean, really, how much could the good folks at St. James and I stand this sloppiness.

          And the one time I let him preach—horrors! He read his sermon haltingly at best, mixing words up and shaking to beat the band. Besides that, if he'd had any kind of decent delivery at all, his theology was more Pilgrim Holiness than Anglican. He talked about Jesus as if he were a good guy from down the street, someone who would teach you a lot and lead you to heaven when you die. Obviously, he'd never studied theology or homiletics—or much of anything else so far as I could tell. I was embarrassed for him, but more than that, I was embarrassed that I needed him.

          The day of my ordination to the priesthood finally came. I invited Fr. Dodge to stand at the altar with me and the bishop out of guilt over what I planned to do. He was so excited about being at the altar with the bishop and about being part of the procession of two dozen other priests. He told me afterward that it was one of the greatest days of his life and that he was so proud to work with me.

          The next week I fired him.

          Well, it wasn't really a 'firing'. I drove up to  his house high up on a hill about 30 miles from Charleston and talked to him on his front porch. I explained how now that I was a priest I really didn't need him to drive all that way twice a month. I told him he needed to take it easier at his age. I reminded him that there were two churches much closer to his home that would probably be overjoyed to have his help. I thanked him for all he'd done and told him I really didn't need any coffee and that I'd had lunch already. “No,” I said, “I don't really  have time for a piece of pecan pie.”

          He said he understood. He told me how much he'd enjoyed working with me and how much he'd learned from me. “You're going to be a wonderful priest,” he said.

          I thanked him and slinked away to my car. But by the time I got back to Charleston, what few qualms I'd had about what I'd done were melted away. I was a priest—potentially a 'wonderful' one at that—and I was finally free of Fr. Dodge. Things would really get rolling now at St. James. It would be like releasing the emergency brake that had held me back while I was a deacon.

          A month or so later, Remitha Spurlock, one of the saints of St. James, came to see me. She made an appointment and everything instead of just dropping in like usual. We ever sat in my office and made small talk—something Remitha seldom did and wasn't good at. Finally, she cleared her throat and began....

          “I wanted to come and find out if anything was wrong with Fr. Dodge,” she said. “I've noticed he hasn't been here since your ordination.”

          I started explaining how since I was a priest now, I didn't need him as much. “And,” I lied, “his wife felt it was a long way for him to drive....”

          She held up her hand and got up. “That's fine,” she said, “just as long as he isn't sick again....”

          She was halfway to the door when I caught my breath and said, “Again?”

          She spoke with her back to me. “Well, his first stroke wasn't too bad....”

          “First stoke...”, is all I could get out.

          But the second one laid him up for months,” she said. Then facing me, she continued in a soft voice, “but you know, since we didn't have a priest, he got his wife to drive him down and he did the service sitting on a stool. He couldn't give communion, of course, but Morris and the Colonel did that for him....And when the service was over, two of the younger men would carry him down to his wheelchair and....”

          I didn't hear much more. I wished she'd stop talking or that I would be struck deaf and dumb or the floor would open up and I could crawl inside.

          “You know what I admire most about Fr. Dodge?” she was asking when I tuned back in.

          I shook my head and tried to speak. I think I was struck dumb.

          “How he was willing to continue his ministry even though that glorious reading voice he had and the regal way he held himself at the altar was taken away from him....”

          “He had a good voice...?” I croaked.

          “Sometimes he'd sing a solo for us,” she said, killing me with her matter-of-fact tone. “And I wish you could have heard him read the service,” she continued, consigning me with her smile to one of the lowest circles of Dante's hell. “Before the strokes he was one of the best speakers I ever heard. He gave up a career in radio to be a schoolteacher. Did he ever tell you that?”

          I discovered I was sitting back down though I didn't remember doing it after I stood up when she started to leave. “No,” I said softly, “he never did.”

          “Well,” she said, backing toward the door, “just shows what a humble man he was. Humility, I think, is what makes a man a wonderful priest.”

          Then she was gone and I was left alone to consider humility.

          (One of the things that happened at Virginia Seminary on a regular basis was 'bridge before lunch”. There were half-a-dozen or so card tables in the room outside the refectory and while whoever was assigned to help set up lunch was doing their job, bridge would break out. My partner most of the time was Robert Wall. I was a novice at bridge but Robert was a master. He'd played in tournaments before coming to seminary. As inept as I was, Robert carried me. We were a good team—so good that none of our classmates would play with us but the underclass folks could be duped into a game.

          They'd see us at a table and come over and ask if we'd like to have a game. Usually, since no one wants to be in over their heads, they'd say, “are you any good?” Robert would answer for both of us. “Jim's bad and I'm OK.” Then we'd embarrass them until lunch started.

          Once, over lunch, just after Robert had taken a Five Spade bid by finessing the trey, I asked him why he didn't tell other people the truth about his ability.

          He quoted scripture: “He who humbles himself will be exalted,” he said.

          Somehow, I don't think that's what the passage means.)

          'Humility' has the same root as 'humus'--dirt, earth. True humility isn't about demeaning yourself or pretending to be less than you are. True humility is realizing, beyond any doubt, who you are and where you came from. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust....”

          Being humble means being close to the earth from which we all come. A friend of mine often said she doesn't trust anyone who hasn't had their face on the pavement. What she means, I believe, is that once you've hit bottom you realize that whatever you accomplish or however far you rise in life, the earth is patiently waiting for you. The biggest part of humility is perspective and point of view.

          Things look rather distorted when you're a Hot Shot. It's like flying in an airplane and thinking about how everything 34,000 feet below looks small and toy-like. Things may look that way from up high, but you best not forget that they aren't really small—it's just your perspective and your point of view from up there.

          While Remitha talked with me about Fr. Dodge, she knew what infamy I had committed, what a lying rat I had been. While she talked, my face descended from on high to the grit and grime of the pavement. The ground, the earth, the humus swallowed me up. It was a profoundly painful but blessed gift, one I'd need to receive countless times afterward.

          I called Fr. Dodge and drove out to his house. I told him that I had been wrong. I told him that I wanted him to come back, if he only would, twice a month—once to celebrate and once to preach. I told him I realized that I didn't want to do it all by myself. I told him I was sorry and asked him to please, please consider coming back.

          He was as gracious as before, only this time, I hadn't had lunch and we ate tuna-fish sandwiches on homemade bread, washed it down with sweet iced tea and each had two pieces of Mrs. Dodge's pecan pie.

          For a year or so after that, I sat at his figurative liturgical knee. I came to delight in his mispronunciations--”infant love” might work even better than “infinite love” when all is said and done. It became a pleasure to prompt him or merely point to the altar book in the right place. I finally started 'lining out' the service when he celebrated by pointing as he read. (In fact, I trained seminarians to do the same for me in the last decade of my full time priesthood!)

          And, for the first time, I noticed what his magic was with the parishioners of St. James. He never pretended to remember names when he didn't. He simply asked politely. He listened to them with steady intensity and didn't say much in return. He smiled almost constantly and the slight crookedness of his smile from the strokes came to be dear to me. I never bought his simplistic theology, but I did allow that if we can't talk about 'heaven' we must likely will never be able to imagine it...or go there....

          Then he died, suddenly and in his sleep. It was my honor, after the bishop did the funeral, to commit his ashes to the ground. I drove up to his house on the hill and scattered them in the garden he loved to work in, even after his strokes, among his flowers and bushes. Mrs. Dodge told me how much 'Billy' had enjoyed working with me and being at St. James.

          “He told me many times that you were a wonderful priest,” she said, brushing away a tear.

          “It takes one to know one,” I told her and she beamed.

          “That makes him happy,” she said, “I just know it does.”

          We left Fr. Dodge in the humus of his garden (and in the heaven he so clearly imagined) while we went inside to tell stories, laugh and cry and eat some pecan pie.





This week's sermon (got it done early!)


LENT V—April 3, 2022

          “Mary took a pound of costly perfume, made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”

          Do you know what ‘nard’ is?

          It comes from the spikenard plant that mostly grows in the Himalaya mountains.

          That was a long way to transport anything in the first century. No wonder it was ‘costly’!

          Judas said it was worth 300 denarii, which would be a year’s wages for a worker in Israel at that time. Judas remarked that the money should be given to the poor.

          Costly, indeed!

          Judas, of course, was just wishing it were in the common purse where he could steal some of it. He wasn’t concerned at all about the ‘poor’ to whom Jesus ministered.

          But Jesus replied in a shocking way.

          “She bought it that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

                We do always have the poor with us.

          In this, the richest country on earth and in this, one of the wealthiest states in the richest county, and in this, one of the wealthiest cities in this wealthy state the poor are always with us.

          I am proud to minister to a parish that does so much for the poor. Your food and clothing donations are amazing—more than much larger churches do. You do a great deal, you really do.

          But is it enough?

          I’ll come back to that, but I want to talk a little more about Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.

          In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching at their house and Mary is listening while Martha is preparing dinner for the crowd.

          Martha comes to Jesus and tells him she needs Mary’s help in the household and he should tell her to help her sister.

          Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need for only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.”

          And then when Jesus comes to raise Lazarus from the dead, Mary is the one who shows him where they have lain him.

          We must do all we can to help the poor, the hungry, the homeless.

          But we must not be distracted from “the better part”, which is to worship the Lord our God.

          We are fast approaching the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.

          We must always, always look after the poor.

          But we must also prepare for Jesus’ death.

          We must do “the better part”, as Mary did.

          That is why we are gathered here this morning.

          To worship and adore the Body and Blood of Jesus.

          That was a disturbing thought to his disciples—to eat his body and drink his blood.

          But for us, today, it is ‘the better part’.

          That is our dual role—to do all we can for the poor who are always with us AND to taste and see how sweet the Lord is.

          Keep bringing your donations. Work however and whenever you can for those in need—here and everywhere.

          But this morning, come to the Table and find Jesus and take him into your heart and soul.

          Shalom and amen.


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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.