Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Soft Animal of My Priesthood: Yet another thing that being out of a parish is teaching me about parish ministry

So, friends, now it’s going on five months out of parish ministry after having left my congregation of 11 1/2 years. Yes, there are possibilities, yes, ecclesiastical wheels turn, yes, there are churches that will need a priest and I'm a priest who needs a church. Having had this extra time, though, I’m continuing to interrogate what that means: how not “having a church” helps me understand what it is to have one, what it means to be ordained in the first place.

When I was in college, as part of my gender studies degree I read feminist psychology about the gendered nature of self-perception. Rather than as isolated individuals, women (I’m just leaving right on the floor here the fact that “woman” is a complicated category and acknowledging the work I’m remembering relies on some conventional stereotypes and antiquated assumptions) often perceive their identity and place in the world relationally.  Not as self-over-and-against the world, but as self understood through relationships with other people. This is presumed to be a good thing: the rugged individual who prioritizes (um) *him*self does not always tend to place care for others at the center of their lives.  But it also cuts the other way: it’s great to be connected to others.  If, though, someone is defined only through others to whom they are connected, the strength and self-differentiation of that individual perhaps does not make them the fiercest bear in the room.

As a priest, I experienced this relational understanding a lot—not so much in terms of how I understood myself as an individual, but how I understood myself as a priest. Being a priest was relational: identified with that particular parish.  This is not how the Episcopal/Anglican tradition views ordination: it’s seen as an “ontological change,” a change in who you are, period.  You can be home with your kids or working as a pastry chef or at a homeless shelter, but you’re still a priest. It’s not a role grounded in a permanent identity, not a temporary task. But what does it mean without a church? 

The church still has invested in me the power to, as the ordination rite says, “to preach, to declare God's forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God's blessing, [and] to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ's Body and Blood.”  “I’m not a parish priest right now, with baptisms and communion to celebrate—that’s the only kind of priest I’d ever been. 

I was most powerfully struck by this recently at Wild Goose Festival, which my family has attended for the last five summers.   The festival is themed on music, art, spirituality, and justice, with speakers and readings and performances on assorted related themes. It attracts a variety of religious impulses but is generally progressive and Christian.    There’s a lot of mud (you camp) and feral children roam in packs demanding money for lemonade and ice cream. It's heavenly. 

Beer and Hymns, Wild Goose (just beer, and hymns. that's it.)
Every other time I’ve gone to Wild Goose I’ve done so on my church’s dime as “continuing education.” The parish funded the trip both in terms of time off from my usual work and money for gas and the ticket to get in.  As a result, my experience there was filtered through the lens of my perception of responsibility to my parish: looking for shiny things to bring home. Continuing education time is part of the standard clergy contract—you couldn’t use it to go shopping in Jamaica, but there are no set expectations for how robust a “payoff” it is to the congregation. Still, there’s some sense that you ought to carry away something useful, like ideas for children’s education or profound spiritual experience or social justice insight. 

Being at Wild Goose without a parish behind me, I realized I wasn’t constantly packaging my experience for the consumption of others.  I was just…there. And I was aware of how pleasant—holy, even!— it was just to be there. Ironically, I wrote a blog post about the holiness of thereness three years ago (here) and continue to learn my own lesson. This year at Wild Goose, I didn’t go looking for the next genius thing. I went to workshops led by my friends.  Hours spent on the state of public education or protest poetry could have been relevant enough to parish ministry, but not to have to ask the question in the first place made me realize how heavy a burden it had become to be manufacturing those tiny parcels of insight in the back of my mind.

Newsflash: I didn’t have to. I didn’t have to prove how clever or worthy I was. I didn’t have to spin straw into gold. My job as a priest was also in the other part in the ordination rite: “to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”  Just love. To point to where we and God are connected. To be connected myself.   My understanding of priesthood evidently needed less relationality between me and the people and more relationality between all of us and God.  Being a priest isn’t about standing in front and saying smart things. When it feels like it is, it’s time to try being a priest in a different way.  This time away is inviting me into that other space.

My experience of being a priest at Wild Goose Festival without a congregation helped me to have a sense for how I was still a priest even without a congregation. This view of having been a priest having “my” people—I even did it in the last paragraph there without thinking—it too easily slips into carrying a ridiculous burden that deadens the clergy and infantilizes the congregation.  It’s like church architecture that puts the altar at the front of the church and the priest behind it; everyone’s looking at you.  You’re there, and you might as well pray from there so everyone can see. The older practice of having everyone face forward and the congregation see the back of the priest isn’t better, necessarily, but it’s crucial to remember that being in front isn’t the point. 

Crucially, too, I also realize how much I relied on that identity and that congregation to tell me who I was.  My priesthood is more than that particular context, and my personhood is more than as a working parish priest.  Having been more creaturely these last months (a la Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese poem,below,  allowing the soft animal of my body to love what it loves) I’m also aware that I’m more than the kid sleepovers and setting up house and landing in a new community and (having moved to a Trump state) political protests I’ve been part of.  More than the suburban lawn I have to go mow now, too. 

(And, because it is impossible to read it too many times, here’s Oliver's whole poem)

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

--Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese” in Dream Work, 1986,

 [Gratuitous photograph of children running hand in hand toward Lake Erie, August 2017]

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Different Words, Same Page

“How was it to read the responses instead of leading the service?”

My mother asked me this question after church on Easter, having sat with me in church for the first time since—when? College?  A long time. Until this year, she’s always had to come and watch our kids during Holy Week, a marathon of leading services Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday--most days two services, most services preaching.  I responded in somewhat adolescent fashion, replying dismissively that they were all words on a page. Who cares that I’m almost 40?  I didn’t want to talk about it.

Even feeling a bit less testy now, I still stand by that. Strictly speaking, liturgy does in large part come down to words on the page.  It’s a particular kind of speech that works because it’s repeated, and it’s a particular kind of speech because it relies on a whole raft of shared assumptions and referents. (My MDiv thesis was on this—I am doing my best not to go on and on and on here). Liturgies work because others have performed them, and others before them, too. Words and actions both come together. Words are actions. There’s an elasticity to it: an outdoor church service whose congregation is experiencing homelessness feels different from an indoor service with incense, four choirs, and an organ. It would be wrong to claim that one of those groups of people was comprised of lower-quality Christians or that the prayers of one were heard by God any more effectively than the other.  Bread, wine, words.   Call and response.  Priest and people. You might prefer one liturgical context or language to another, but it’s the same action. And you have to have both priest and people for sacraments.  

Person at altar, person in pew. Call, response. Neither works without the other. If anything, what was remarkable about last week’s services was how not-different the liturgies in themselves felt.  I got a little teary thinking about my old parish (similarly to my experience a few weeks ago I wrote about here), but I didn’t feel out of place or lost. Holy week still felt…holy.  3 years ago I wrote a post in this space about performance artist Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present comparing her immersion in her work with being a priest.  I still stand by that piece*, but I also think that a lot of what felt holy was actually the anxiety and adrenaline rush that ensues when an introvert has to stand in front of people four days in a row. That realization doesn’t make it less “spiritual,” but I wonder if I’ll be able to go a bit easier on myself in the future. Maybe I’ll be able to say my parts and the congregation can say theirs, and I’ll understand a bit more clearly about how it’s shared.  There were all kinds of conflicts during the Reformation about how, exactly, bread and wine become body and blood: was it saying the words of Jesus, or praying the Holy Spirit on the elements, or the priest, or the people—my favorite answer then, and still, was Richard Hooker’s—it happens when the people say Amen. So be it, and it is.

I quote—probably too often—a line I heard in a Martin Smith book about how God has called some people to be clergy because God does not trust them to be lay people. As someone whose return to the church of her childhood came in tandem with an experience of a call to the priesthood, that resonates a lot. I never did get myself organized enough to join a church as a young adult until I was thinking of going to seminary, and then I was all in.

Now into my second month of not working in a parish I’m also aware how God is, also, entrusting me with the this experience, too.  When it was announced on Maundy Thursday that no one had signed up for the 12am-1am slot in the overnight vigil remembering Jesus and his disciples in the garden before the crucifixion, I could say yes to my ten year old when he wanted me to take him. Did I ever take the uncomfortable hours when I was leading holy week in my parish?  Nope. Would I again? If I’m in parish ministry, probably not.  But I will always be grateful to be the parent of a kid who is comfortable enough in church to take a nap under an organ console.  And if not for this time, I wouldn’t have been there for it.

So yes, during Holy Week, I said the words on the page.  

Mostly. (I will always substitute expansive language when it refers to God as “he,” no matter what it says) I got my feet washed and prayed at the cross. I got drenched with the holy water of Baptism at the vigil and got wax on my clothes.  I got to hear sermons, instead of write them!   And, with Richard Hooker in the 16th Century, I took some time to worry less about how God was present in what I was doing and just to be grateful that God was. 

Photo: Paul Barker

                                      Adah getting her feet washed at the outdoor kids' service.

*PS--A version of my Abramovic post was included in the book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit, a lovely collection of work by women clergy edited by Martha Spong. Get it here!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

On being Somewhere Else

I’ve been thinking in circles for weeks now about how to write about leaving Christ Church Waltham—and moving away from Boston, which I’d lived in for the last 17 years (minus seminary in New York City).  We bought our house in Pittsburgh exactly four weeks ago.   Writing was a huge part of how I did my job—as solo pastor I preached every week, and in addition to that I wrote a weekly email newsletter. Neither of those things were optional; there was a reliable rhythm to it that led to a certain trust that ideas would turn up when I sat down to receive them.  It also led to a certain attentiveness to my surroundings; like a crow, bringing shiny things home to create my theological nest.  Some pieces sparkled better than others, but the nest was still sufficient for shelter.

The move has been a move home, sort of—Pittsburgh is 120 miles from where I grew up in Erie, and I’ve been surprised by the pieces of Western Pennsylvania that had lain dormant in the back of my mind.  Ridiculous to the sublime: personal injury attorney Edgar B Snyder, who still dominates highway billboards, points his finger at the camera promising no fees “unless WE get money for YOU.”  Eat ‘N Park (the local version of Denny’s) with frosted cookies and bottomless, reliably drinkable coffee.  The fact that you can’t buy beer and whiskey in the same store, because the state of Pennsylvania has claims on the latter.

Also dwelling, sleeper-cell like in the back of my mind in the 20 years since I lived here last, is the day itself. Further west and south than Boston, here the sun comes up closer to 7am than 6am, a blessed relief.  I remember being so appalled by the early sunshine when I first moved to Boston in the year 2000 I tried to tack blankets over my window to block the sinister morning light. Here, there is no hurry: the sun will come up eventually. Of course, it may or may not come out. Boston has no bragging rights for good weather, but it is definitely less dreary than here. Somebody actually quantified this—in their “dreariness index” Boston was tied for fourth nationwide, Pittsburgh for second.   But the greyness feels like home, too.  

Hunt Stained Glass and the Ohio River West End Bridge

My last day at Christ Church was a month ago, March 5.  Our house was packed up to move the next day.   At the same time as I’ve been surprised by how much home this feels, I am also clearly somewhere else.  This struck me most forcefully last Sunday at a youth group talent show at St Paul’s, where Noah just started as rector.  It was fantastic: they did a skit and sang everything from Elvis to Vance Joy (and they were really good!).     The talent show at my church in Waltham was always one of my favorite events. People shared everything: poems about their cats, kids with pogo stick performances, family garage band covers of Nirvana.  All of it fit together in the most beautiful and strange unity.  On Sunday as one of the girls was singing that’s all I could think—I am somewhere else.

Somewhere else: familiar and foreign at the same time, a wide-open space for grace to move.  Sunday night was a moment of the sacramental oneness of church basements.   I have come home to a grey place that is home without being home, and the things that I loved about church are still here to love.  I cried, but for gratitude, not regret. I miss my old church, but I have no reservations at all about being here.  It is always a blessing to witness the astonishing work of what God does in community of all kinds, where everybody gets to be a rock star.

The hard thing about trying to articulate the experience of leaving is that it’s hard to draw lines between what is my story to tell and what is not.  When you leave a parish, you leave: you can’t send secret messages between the lines of a blog post.  The story of Christ Church isn’t my story anymore.   My 11 ½ years there will always have been one of the greatest privileges of my life, and the power that was behind that is the same power that will lead me and them into whatever new thing God is doing.

So for the first time in a long time, I’m sitting in a pew.  It’s been ten years since I had a Holy Week without leading all the services—in 2007 my son had just been born and I was home with him. He got one of his first baths on Maundy Thursday: I washed tiny feet. There’s been something about these last few weeks that has reminded me of those first few days of parenthood—liminal, like the thing that will unfold is not yet, and you can’t quite see where you’re going.  It would have seemed ludicrous to me then that in ten years his feet would almost be the size of my own. It would have been a great surprise to me that parenting turned out to be so much fun, too.  It is only in the very most abstract way that this experience is like having a newborn—this liminal space involves way more time to read novels.  So I’m enjoying myself, and paying close attention to what’s next.  And, for today at least, the sun is out.

note: While the preceding line is a much more poetic ending (and it was true yesterday when I wrote this), it is, in fact, raining now and is forecast to snow tomorrow. 
Yes. Snow. On April 7.