Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On Becoming a "Protestant Jesuit"

In June 1988, just a couple of weeks after graduating from Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey with an M.Div. degree, I was ordained in the Wyoming Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church at Elm Park United Methodist Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I was twenty-five years old. Having spent my undergraduate years at Georgetown University, I had told the Board of Ordained Ministry that I thought I heard a call to become a kind of "Protestant Jesuit" but I wasn't quite sure how that might be lived out over time. It's part of the story I've been telling myself and others ever since in trying to make sense of my vocation to serve the Church as an ordained person for these past twenty-nine years.

The pilgrimage from that day to this day has been a winding road. After ordination I served a small United Methodist congregation in rural New Jersey for a year as I studied at Princeton Seminary for a Th.M.degree in Church History. That was the last year of so-called part-time ministry, which then as now is really almost always full-time ministry for half-time pay. In 1990 I landed at Central Connecticut State University as the Protestant Campus Minister. Although I had flirted with the Episcopal Church in seminary (including a stint as the seminarian at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison) I arrived in New Britain as a United Methodist. Soon, however, Hathy and I (and our first-born son) made our home at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in New Britain. It was from that launching pad that I finally took the leap (and they took the leap of sponsoring me) toward ordination in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Connecticut. Five years after I had been ordained in Scranton (almost to the day) I was ordained to the transitional diaconate at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, and then eight months later, I was ordained to the priesthood at Christ and Holy Trinity in Westport, where I had begun to serve as their Associate Rector. This move to the Episcopal Church could be understood in part as a way to further embrace this call to become a "Protestant Jesuit."

I recently celebrated my 54th birthday. After almost three decades of ordained life, at this point, I don't really have a back-up plan anymore. I once thought I might do a PhD so I could teach, but instead I decided early on as the rector at St. Francis Church in Holden to study for a D.Min. at Columbia Theological Seminary in  Decatur, Georgia. (For those not aware, D.Mins are the preferred choice for those who are committed to parish work, rather than PhDs which are really requisite if you want to teach in a college or seminary.) I received that degree in 2005 - a dozen years ago now.

This post isn't meant to rehearse my spiritual autobiography, much of which readers of this blog already know (more or less) anyway. Rather, it's really all preface to reflecting on an upcoming Sabbatical, which begins at the end of this week, on April 1. Sabbaticals give one an opportunity to step back and stand on the balcony and look out on the dance floor; to ponder anew what the Almighty can do (and has done) through all these years. And to wonder what it is that the next chapter(s) might look like. So I'm in a reflective mood as I prepare for that time...

Sabbaticals (or renewal leaves) are meant for big questions and for rekindling the fire of one's call. Mine was to become a "Protestant Jesuit" - by which I think I initially meant that I was quite certain that I was not called to celibacy or to Rome,but that I admired the depth and integrity of the Society of Jesus and I thought Protestants could use a dose of that. The Jesuits are both priests and teachers and I've seen my calling as a way of integrating that work as two sides to the same coin.

I was led (or driven?) to Campus Ministry initially, I think, because I thought that was one way to live that calling out. And it was. I was led (or driven?) to The Episcopal Church because this more liturgical, sacramental "middle" way denomination felt more like the "home" out of which I could continue to explore and deepen this vocation as a "Protestant Jesuit."  Early on, in Westport and then for fifteen years in Holden, it became clear to me that my gifts and passions were in the area of Christian formation and of the need to form disciples for the work of building up the Church. I've always seen the teaching, rabbinical side of the work as essential and even now in diocesan ministry I've tried to embrace those teaching opportunities and invitations. Just this Lent I've been teaching a three-week study on the Psalms at All Saints Church in Worcester; doing so makes me feel alive and "called" and helping to further the Reign of God, at least in some small way.

This is one of the gifts the Jesuits gave me in the classroom and beyond at Georgetown: a gift of loving the questions and of introducing me to spiritual practices that have sustained and deepened my faith and helped me to grow a bit more into the full stature of Christ. The current pope embodies for me much of what I first loved and still love about the Society of Jesus.So I continue to embrace this narrative, this metaphor, of living out my vocation as a "Protestant Jesuit" even if I don't talk like that so often these days.

Several friends of mine have posted the words or similar ones on Facebook before, and I "like" the post, even if it is a "bumper sticker theology." But like all bumper sticker theologies it doesn't tell the whole truth. It's a good reminder, to be sure. And  I've been ordained long enough to know how clerics and vestries can get stuck on "church" - on budgets and roofs and all the rest. We can find ourselves getting "churchified," we who make our living in the Church. Yet we are called to be part of the Jesus movement, to be and to help form followers of Jesus. So all this is true and the reminder is important, especially for people like me who work one step removed from the life of congregations. And yet, the Church is not just another "institution." The Church's one foundation, we sing, is Jesus Christ her Lord. The Church is, as a beautiful prayer in The Book of Common Prayer puts it, "that wonderful and sacred mystery." The Church is two or three gathered together, in Jesus' name, where God has promised through God's well-beloved Child to be in our midst.  In other words, my vocation (and our shared vocation as members of the Body of Christ) is to build up the Church, not dismiss it. We just need to remember that the Church is not a building, but a mystic sweet communion of saints who are called to follow Jesus.

When I accepted the call to serve as "Canon to the Ordinary" (a churchy title if ever there was one, and surely one that I imagine would have puzzled Jesus of Nazareth) I worried about the danger of being a middle manager; a "bureaucrat." So again, this is why I resonate with the post: more than ever I am trying to keep my eyes on Jesus. But I live that work out, now more than ever, by building up the Church, hopefully for Christ's sake.

As I get ready for Sabbatical I'm wondering: how specifically can a Canon be a "Protestant Jesuit?" What does it look like if that is still the calling? Is it time to let the metaphor go or embrace it even more? As a parish priest, no matter how many vestry meetings might make you pull out your hair, someone is born and then baptized and two someones ask you to officiate at their wedding and then someone dies and you offer the prayers of the Church and trust with God's people that in death "life is changed, not ended." On occasion these things happen over the course of a couple of days. You are intimately connected to the circle of life as a parish priest.

The work of a canon is a bit removed from these more intimate pastoral responsibilities. I work to build up the Church: helping clergy and congregations through conflict and through transitions and encouraging lay and ordained leaders to focus on the real work, and not get bogged down in the crap. (That's a technical word, translated directly from the Greek.)

In 2003 and 2004, I took a Sabbatical in two six-week segments to focus on that previously mentioned D.Min. at Columbia Theological Seminary. I was in a program called "Gospel and Culture" and I had a chance to study with amazing people like Walter Brueggemann and Barbara Brown Taylor and Anna Carter Florence. I studied hard and read a lot of books on homiletics (aka preaching) and we were talking about "missional church" long before it was "cool." I hope my preaching improved in the process, but even if it didn't I do believe it got more focused, and intentional. I got clearer about what preaching was for. And what it was not for. It was a great gift to have that kind of focused energy on preaching after having been at it for fifteen years or so - rather than just one or two classes in seminary.

In 2008, I took a second Sabbatical (this time in one three-month segment) at the ten year mark as rector of St. Francis Church. At the time our sons were 17 and 14. The four of us traveled out west and saw some of this country's great national parks as a family and I traveled up and down the east coast with my eldest (and sometimes my youngest) looking at college campuses as he got underway with his own process of discernment to find the college where he might be challenged and grow. It was a wonderful break from daily work, and rightly that Sabbatical focused primarily on my vocation as spouse and parent probably more than as priest. It was a holy and good time.

In 2013, I was due to take my third sabbatical from St. Francis. With the support of my vestry, we wrote a grant proposal with the Lily Foundation who give significant grants for Clergy Renewal Leaves. I was focused on Scotland where Hathy and I first met as undergraduates, at the University of St. Andrew's on a Junior Year Abroad. But I didn't receive the grant from Lily, and in the meantime it became a moot point when I was asked by Bishop Doug Fisher to join his staff as Canon to the Ordinary. I joined that team; the Bishop promised it would be "fun" and it has been, most days.

Four years later, twenty-nine years as an ordained person, fifty-four years old, I will begin a three-month Sabbatical at the end of this week. My spiritual director gave me a good piece of advice: to let Sabbatical work on me rather than needing to have a master plan. I am open to that. The first two Sabbaticals were clearer: academic work in the first and family time in the second. We are now empty nesters and I now have four years under my belt of trying to wrap my head around diocesan ministry. Like the television show, "Seinfeld," this is a Sabbatical about nothing!

But even with an open heart, I do have some plans in place; I can't help myself. I'll spend Holy Week at the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge and then the last week of June at SSJE's other retreat house, Emery House in West Newbury. Framing this time away in prayer and specifically being in those two places that have been so important to my priestly formation as part of the Fellowship of St. John will be a great gift. In between those two retreat times, I'm working on a cookbook for my kids, and I have a long reading list, and I may also do some blogging and even more intentional writing. Oh yes: and we will finally be going back to Scotland, for the first time since Hathy and I returned there on our honeymoon. This time we'll take our adult sons along with us and see some of our old "haunts" and discover some new ones. I'm also going to attend the Festival of Homiletics in San Antonio, which is like "camp" for preachers - and there I hope to reconnect if only briefly with three of those CTS profs: Walter, Barbara, and Anna.

If you've read this far, I commend you: it's a bit like reading someone's diary over their shoulder, I imagine. Ruminations to be sure, but if you have come this far I have a request: your prayers. My own prayer is that this time away will help me to deepen and strengthen my sense of vocation and to tap into that fire as I enter the next chapter in my ordained life and head into my thirtieth year. Scary, I know! I seek to follow Jesus more clearly, nearly, and dearly but I do that as a member of the Church - the Body of Christ. So I ask your prayers as I seek, always with God's help, to continue to grow into what it might mean to be a "Protestant Jesuit" in this new time and place.