“I don’t like my priest.” Someone — not one of my own parishioners — said this to me recently. It had nothing to do with what the clergyman in question was doing or failing to do in ministry. By all accounts this person’s priest is quite an effective pastor and leader. The parish is growing and he has a lot of support from various segments of the congregation. The issue, from this person’s perspective, was the priest’s personality. She just didn’t like him.
What happens when you don’t really like your parish priest? Does it matter? We certainly don’t “like” everyone we encounter in this life. Some people just rub us the wrong way. It may be something trivial like their voice or their wardrobe — superficial reasons to be sure but even such small things may mask deeper reasons. We throw labels around all the time when trying to explain what we don’t like about a person: arrogant, glad-hander, bully, suck-up. Often these accusations reveal our own biases or previous life experiences. Granted, sometimes the other person is actually just a jerk.
What a lot of people do when they don’t like their priest, of course, is simply leave the congregation in search of another one. In a culture where “church shopping” is an accepted practice, why not just shop around until you find a priest you like? A place where the priest’s personality better suits your own; a church where you could see yourself going out for a beer with your pastor.
But is “liking” the clergy really the point? For some, being friends with their clergy is the single most important thing in their spiritual life. People don’t like to admit this since it really should be all about God but the lines can become easily blurred. Whether we admit it or not, “liking” the clergy is a major part of why people attend particular congregations. We want them to know our names and our stories — something increasingly difficult in growing congregations.
In some ways this issue reminds me of the Donatist controversy of the early 4th century. In North Africa the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered a wave of intense persecution against Christians blaming them for a series of plagues that led to economic instability. During this time any Christian who renounced the faith was spared. Christians who were caught with copies of Scripture (usually clergy) were especially susceptible to punishment — usually death. Many priests allowed their texts to be burned, thereby sparing their lives.
After Constantine succeeded Diocletian, the persecution eventually abated and disappeared entirely in 313 when the emperor declared tolerance for Christianity. A significant number of North Africans who remained faithful objected when the lapsed clergy again took up their positions. A group of purists led by Donatus, condemned these priests as Roman collaborators who defamed the memory of the martyrs. They declared the orders of the lapsed priests invalid and refused to accept the sacraments from them while the opposing party championed the concept of forgiveness for all.
Into this controversy stepped St. Augustine of Hippo, whose view was that it was the office of priest, not his personal character, that gave validity to the sacraments. This position won out and Donatism would go down in history as a classic heresy.
The point here is that an individual’s personal feelings about a priest are ultimately irrelevant. It’s the sacramental ministry that matters, not whether or not we “like” our clergy. Faith transcends personality. And while we all seek connection and relationship, it’s important to keep it in its proper perspective. Connection and relationship with Jesus Christ always comes first, the realization of which, I think, takes some pressure off both clergy and parishioners.
I hope the woman I spoke with doesn’t leave her community just because she doesn’t want to hang out with her priest. While a priest’s personality can set a tone for a congregation, a community of faith is more than just one person. It’s a rich tapestry of personalities and experiences — some that resonate with us, others that don’t — all working together to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
At our weekly staff meetings we’ve recently started praying our way through the parish directory. Each week at the conclusion of our meeting, one member of the staff slowly reads the names of two columns-worth of parishioners — about 18 families. There’s something profound about praying for the entire parish as we remember all of the souls in our care.
There are people who are very involved at St. John’s and others I’ve never met or whose names I don’t recognize. Just last week — we’re mired in the “D’s” right — we prayed for a member of the parish whose wife had just died. We all sort of paused in awe of the gentle moving of the Spirit.
What I really love about this concept is that it keeps us grounded on the importance of community formed in Christ’s name. It’s easy — especially at staff meetings — to get stuck on the logistics and minutiae of ministry. This practice helps us remember the main thrust of our ministry with and among God’s people.
Parish directories are funny things. Despite all the hard work involved in putting them together, they’re immediately out-of-date the moment they’re published. People die or move out of town; babies are born; some get mad at the rector and storm off in a huff; newcomers join the parish. Ultimately they’re mere snapshots of a particular moment in the life of community of faith.
Yet even knowing this, praying the parish directory feels like a sacred spiritual discipline.
And anyway, I’m confident that God alone, the God who can count every hair on our heads, has the one, truly updated directory.
In light of today’s Supreme Court decision to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, I’ve been thinking a lot about Lisa and Fiona. In the days before gay marriage was a viable option for same-sex couples, clergy were occasionally asked to perform “blessings.” Sometime these were even done in the context of a house blessing since many weren’t ready to bless these couples inside the four walls of a church.
These issues sound almost quaint in light of the recent progress toward marriage equality but these were high stakes, emotionally-charged times. I officiated at a same-sex blessing while a priest in New York and, with the couple’s “blessing,” I wrote an article about the experience that appeared in the Episcopal New Yorker. I share it with you here as I rejoice with the many gays and lesbians who simply want respect, dignity, equality, and perhaps an over-the-top wedding cake.
A More Perfect Union
One priest’s encounter with a same-sex blessing
“You two are nothing if not liturgically challenging,” I commented to Lisa and Fiona as we met to plan the blessing of their union. An interfaith same-sex blessing is not in the Book of Common Prayer. I looked.
Fiona, South African by birth, is a lifelong Anglican and a member of the All Saints’ vestry. Lisa is a self-described “Jewish Episcopalian.” Though she has not converted to Christianity, she and Fiona attend church together each week, pledge, and take their turn hosting coffee hour. Fiona’s daughter enthusiastically participates in our Sunday School program.
When they first approached me about performing a blessing, I admit I was slightly taken aback. Theological considerations in the abstract often have little relationship to concrete situations. I presumed such a request was inevitable and had formulated various responses, but the hypothetical never included faces. Suddenly this was more about two faithful parishioners than any General Convention debate. And it is why, after much prayer, consultation with the bishop, and conversation with my wardens, I agreed to conduct the service. Knowing Fiona and Lisa, praying with them, serving God with them, I became increasingly convinced that no other pastoral response was possible.
The service itself was not a political statement. It wasn’t about two women who had a tangential relationship with the parish. It wasn’t a publicity stunt. I didn’t call the press for “look-at-how-progressive-we-are” coverage. Lisa and Fiona didn’t send an announcement to the Style Section of the Sunday New York Times. Rather, it was a bold statement of love and commitment. A statement of Fiona and Lisa’s love for one another and a statement of Christ’s love for us all.
Fiona and Lisa could have made this statement in a variety of locales: a garden, a gazebo, a beach, or a courthouse. But they wanted to make this statement of love in their spiritual home. They wanted to share the moment with their friends and family, with their community of faith, in the place that has played such an integral role in their individual and collective spiritual journeys. And I couldn’t imagine denying them this simple yet profound request.
The liturgy evolved over time. And I was pleased at how much care and attention Lisa and Fiona paid to the ceremony. It was a carefully planned liturgy. Several resources for same-sex blessings exist; some are helpful, some are miserable. But none of them include the breaking of the glass. With input from the rabbi who assisted at the service, we put together a unique liturgy. One with dignity and joy, but above all one that sought to capture the abiding love of God for two faithful people seeking God’s blessing upon their union.
I’m not sure how the issue of same-sex blessings and even gay marriage will be resolved within the wider Church. All will be revealed in time. But I do know that I stared blankly at the parish register for quite some time following the service. It was not a “marriage.” Civil law and Church canons make this clear. But this liturgy was much too meaningful for Lisa and Fiona and all who witnessed this celebration to be classified under “Other Services.” There was nothing “other” about it.
Later that evening at the reception, as my wife and I danced the night away at Lyndhurst’s carriage house, I had the overwhelming conviction that God’s presence had hovered over the entire evening. There was a transcendent holiness that seemed to stop time and rest, if ever fleetingly, over those who had gathered in the presence of God to witness and bless this union. This was a celebration of love, commitment, and faith. And as a priest, it was a privilege to participate in a seminal moment in the lives of two wonderful and faithful people.
Some weeks it’s tough to keep up spiritually and emotionally with all that swirls around us. In the last couple of days we’ve seen images of devastation coming out of Oklahoma. We continue to be pummeled with disheartening world news and violence in our communities, even as many of us are still trying to process the Boston Marathon bombings, the explosion at a fertilizer factory in West, Texas, and the collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh.
As people of faith, our first response is prayer. Upon hearing about the latest tragedy or disaster we get down on our knees and pray. Or at least close our eyes for a moment at the next stoplight or post a prayer on Facebook. Sometimes we pray because we know it’s what we’re “supposed” to do; sometimes we pray because we can’t thing of anything else to do; sometimes we pray because it’s part of our ongoing and life-long conversation with God; and sometimes we pray because we know it matters.
Yet it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed to the point of “prayer fatigue.” We’re bombarded on all sides by tragic news, horrific images, and interviews with the bereaved, all of which contribute to an overall feeling of helplessness. As many of us are discovering, there’s only so much capacity the human brain has to respond to grief, sadness, and traumatic events. We could become hermits and spend all our days in prayer and, still, it wouldn’t be enough. We’d just be scratching the surface of the world’s needs. As we seemingly face crisis after crisis it’s easy to feel that prayer doesn’t matter or that it doesn’t change anything.
The 24-hour news cycle doesn’t help as images of natural disaster, war, and abject poverty assault our senses and our sensibilities. Nor does social media which, in the face of tragedy, serves as an echo chamber. That’s not to say we should all go off the grid when tragedy strikes — there’s tremendous value in connecting with others, offering prayers and resources, and even raising money as a way to “do something.” Rapid response online donations in the wake of tragedy (at least the ones that warrant media coverage) are becoming part of the national grieving process and perhaps even a secular form of prayer. But it still never feels like enough — there’s always the next tragedy, the next disaster, the next shooting.
The good news is that the world’s peace and harmony doesn’t depend exclusively upon us. That’s God’s realm, not ours. Once we realize this, it takes the pressure off of us to get the words right or say the proper number of prayers to “fix” everything. We don’t even need words — they’re usually inadequate anyway. We can weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn while leaving the big picture to the God who cares for us as a mother cares for her children. This doesn’t mean that tragedy won’t continue to pervade our lives — it’s part of the human condition — but we’re not in this alone. Jesus, who knew something about tragedy, is with us at every step of the journey.
And so, even in the midst of despair, we’re left with hope. As Christians, hope is the bedrock upon which we build the foundations of our lives even as things seemingly crumble around us. Where is God in all of this? Under the rubble; crying out with the disaffected and impoverished; in the tears of those who weep and mourn.
This weekend we mark Trinity Sunday and revel in the fullness of God even as we pray for hope and healing and reconciliation. There is, perhaps, no better time to do just that.
I was down in Copley Square last week for the first time since the marathon bombings. The place was still crawling with news trucks and reporters and police on a beautiful Tuesday morning. I saw the impromptu memorials made up of running shoes and t-shirts and flowers and teddy bears and hand-made signs.
There was a hushed tone quality in the memorial area even as the bustle of downtown Boston swirled all around it. People were writing notes of prayer and support and simply milling around trying to take in the whole scene. Some looked stunned, some resigned, some were quietly wiping away tears; there were gawkers, of course, angling to get in the background of one of CNN’s live shots, but I think everyone was in some way seeking to come to grips with what happened on marathon Monday.
After I said a few quiet prayers, I started thinking about the Boston Strong slogan that’s been on t-shirts and stickers and hats and, more importantly, in the hearts of so many in this area. I agree with the sentiment that in times of trial and distress, it’s important for a community to band together and seek strength in its own unity. Those of us who live in the Boston area take pride in this community and our ties to it and there is great strength of spirit and character here. Anyone who witnessed or participated in the singing of the National Anthem at the Garden before the Bruins played in the first public event after the bombing couldn’t help but get chills.
But I think focusing exclusively on the image of strength has potential pitfalls. When we wrap ourselves in the mantra of Boston Strong, we face the possibility of denying our vulnerability both as individuals and as a community. Clinging to the notion of strength in the midst of uncertainty and fear, does make us feel better and safer in the short-term. But it also has a shadow side of desperation — if we only say we’re strong over and over again, it will magically become true.
Now I realize no one would buy a hat that said “Boston Vulnerable.” That’s not a slogan anyone would rally around or start chanting at a Red Sox game. But from a faith perspective we’re challenged to think beyond popular slogans to get to the heart of things. People being blown up in a public place on a sacred day at an iconic event makes us feel anything but strong. If we’re honest with ourselves, it taps into our deepest anxieties and fears; and feelings of vulnerability and helplessness can’t help but be stirred up.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, we hear Jesus tell St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words strength and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive. It is because of our vulnerability as human beings that we’re able to trust in the strength of God. It’s not our own strength that will see us through — no matter how many t-shirts get sold. It is the strength of God alone that allows us to endure and persevere in the midst of profound tragedy and grief and to find comfort and strength and solace in the context of community.
In light of this Paul goes on to say, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Not because God will fix it and make it all better like a mother who kisses a skinned knee. But because through Jesus we know that God is present even in our darkest hours, even in those moments we feel most vulnerable or alone of forsaken.
When I was a priest in New York, a parishioner asked me if I’d go say last rites for his grandmother — the woman who had raised him. The catch was I had to go to some huge hospital in the middle of the Bronx, which I was happy to do even if it meant getting lost a few times on the way. It turned out her roommate had just died and one of the hospital chaplains was with the family as I arrived. He kept saying over and over again, “Be strong. You gotta be strong.” And I wanted to scream, “No! That’s not what they need right now!” This is precisely the time they need to cast their burdens upon the Lord. They don’t have to be strong, just faithful. And if they can’t do that right now they can just be, and let God hold them in the palm of his hand.
There’s a time to be strong but there’s also a time to admit our weakness, to admit our powerlessness in a situation and let God take the lead. And in that we find true strength.
I hate baptismal shells. You know, those tiny little silver shell-shaped scoops used to carefully drip water on a baby’s head at baptism. I’ve never wanted to admit this before since, not only was I likely baptized with one (along with water and the Holy Spirit, of course) at St. Mark’s in Milwaukee in 1968, but many of my friends and colleagues swear by them. Plus, what self-respecting Episcopal sacristy doesn’t have a beautiful antique baptismal shell that’s been used at the baptismal font for generations?
But, please, let me explain. My problem with baptismal shells is that, in my opinion, they domesticate the rite. The thing is, baptism isn’t merely a quaint rite of passage; something to precede the real event: catered brunch back at the house. When getting the baby “done” takes precedence over the power of God’s Spirit working within us, baptism loses its entire raison d’être. We might as well just take an ordinary bath or a dip in a hotel pool.
Baptism is a rite of commitment; it’s a rite of indissoluble relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s also a rite of total immersion into the Christian faith and the ministry of all the baptized and of being marked as Christ’s own forever. In whatever manner we were baptized, we can’t live our lives as if we’ve been sprinkled with a few drops from a cute silver shell. We must live our lives of faith with the reckless abandon of total immersion.
Let’s face it, our relationship with God is not always a neat, tidy, orderly affair. It can get messy. And baptism, as both an initiation rite and as a continuing symbol of relationship with Christ, should reflect this messiness. There should be water splashing around! And the shell, to me, is just too precious. A symbol of trying to contain the Holy Spirit rather than unleashing it.
So if you come to a baptism at my church, you might get wet. I like to warn people that the area immediately surrounding the baptismal font is the “splash zone” — you sit there at your own risk. No, I won’t go far as baptism by full immersion — trying to jam an adult into our smallish font just isn’t happening. But I’m all for full spiritual immersion, something the shell just doesn’t seem to convey.
And anyway, as we mark the Baptism of Our Lord, it’s hard to imagine John the Baptist, after screaming “You brood of vipers!” at the Pharisees and yelling at all to “Repent!” sprinkling just a few drops of water from a tiny shell onto Jesus’ head in the Jordan River.
I had an interesting encounter today with a woman named Gail who lives in Hingham (she wouldn’t give me her last name). She interrupted me during a meeting (“I just need a minute of your time”) to tell me how displeased she was with the sign on the front lawn of the church highlighting our Saturday 5 pm service. She tried her hardest to muster a conciliatory tone (“I don’t mean to be disrespectful” and “I’ve always so admired your church; it’s one of the most beautiful buildings in Hingham”).
But…there’s always a BUT. After trying to get me to tell her that it was just temporary and I’d be taking it down any moment, she pulled out the firepower: “It looks like a used car lot.” I responded with “That’s the point” and she left.
Now, I don’t think it actually looks like a used car lot. If you’re going to give me that complaint, just check out First Baptist down the street around their fall (or spring — can’t remember) fair. They actually hang those multi-colored plastic flags above their lawn. I think our S.W.5 sign is clever, rather discreet church marketing (evangelism!) for a growing contemporary, informal out-of-the-box service (averaging about 35 this fall and trending upwards).
I posted a brief version of this encounter on Facebook and got some great responses. Lent Madness Celebrity Blogger Heidi Shott said my post sounded like the start to a limerick. This naturally moved Lent Madness Poet Laureate Mary Cox to respond with one:
A woman from Hingham named Gail
proclaimed St. John’s banner a “fail”
it’s just SO indiscreet,
right out there at the street,
like an ad for what’s free — or on sale.
As the Rev. Maxwell Grant (a Congregational pastor in Greenwich, CT) put it in a reply to my post, “Please have the courtesy to keep your church lovely, unobtrusive, and irrelevant…thanks.” And isn’t that the prevailing cultural attitude? People don’t mind pretty churches in their midst as long as they keep the lawn mowed, don’t block my driveway on Sunday morning, do the occasional food drive, and don’t ever invite me to participate in your community. They like Christians to be seen but not heard.
Well, I apologize but that’s not how we do things around here. We really do believe what we say in the ancient Creeds and what we hear of Jesus through Scripture. We’re called to share this Good News with which we have been entrusted not hoard it. And so I’m sorry if you don’t like our sign (don’t push me, Gail, or I’ll invest in some neon) but it’s not going anywhere.
What I really should have done was invite her to attend the service next Saturday. Maybe she really was searching for something deeper. Perhaps the sign wasn’t so much an affront to her aesthetic sensibilities in driving down Main Street as much as a symbol of brokenness in her life as she seeks something that transcends the visible world.
Then again, maybe she just abhors the London Underground.