Friday, March 21, 2014

Are you being fed?

One of my former parishioners really struggled with the language of "child of God." She argued that it infantalizes the people of God, especially the laity. She pointed out that St. Paul invited people to move beyond baby's milk to more solid food and that Holy Baptism looked for us to "grow into the full stature of Christ." And yet we keep calling everyone a child.

I didn't disagree with her; I just didn't think you could completely write that metaphor out of the tradition. Or maybe I didn't know how, or maybe I was too timid. But lately I've been thinking about it again. Jesus called us sisters and brothers but nothing in the gospels that I can find intends to infantalize people the way that the instutional Church so often does. It is true that Jesus said we must become like a child to enter the kingdom of God, but nothing about his ministry suggests that he meant for us to stay there. In fact, Jesus called us to "take up our cross and follow him."

Add to this metaphor of being "children" the insidious nature of consumerism in our North American culture and you have a recipe for disaster. Everywhere we go we are customers and expect to be treated that way. And as we all know, the customer is always right.

Well, actually I don't know that at all. I think often the customer is a pain in the ass. (I say this with all Christian charity.) In high school and college I worked in the restaurant business. I'd see customers eat their perfectly cooked steak and leave nothing but a small piece of grizzle and then say, "this was terrible. I asked for it medium rare and it was not cooked that way. It was medium well. I'd like a refund." And sometimes they'd even get it if the hostess that night was too tired to argue. Literally, they had their steak and ate it too. Why? Because the customer is always right.

"Are you being fed?" It was only at the beginning of my fifteen-year long stint as rector at St. Francis that I heard it, but it comes back to me like fingernails on a chalkboard in my new job whenever I hear it. It's like post-traumatic stress. Let me be clear: they were not asking me if I was being fed and fulfilled in the hard work of parish ministry. Rather, it was a question those who felt that they were not being fed and needing to alleviate their own anxiety asked of anyone who would listen to them in hushed tones. I should also point out that this question almost never gets asked after a rector and parish have been together for more than a few years and come to accept each other, warts and all. Rather, it happens when some in the congregation discover that their new rector is not the second-coming of Jesus (or more accurately, not their predecessor.)

"Are you being fed?" Parishioners, after all, need to be fed. It's in the Bible, right? Like a little baby, a child, they need to be fed by sermons they enjoy and by music that fits their personal taste and by prayers that strangely warm their blessed little hearts. The customer is always right. Maybe a survey can be sent out to everyone to see if the priest measures up. And if not, then what? Re-brand the priest?

The problem is that this language of parishioner as "customer" (and child customer at that!) is deadly to Christian community. When I was a young priest, a crusty old Canon to the Ordinary used to ask me: "are you willing to die in that ditch?" It was his way of saying to pick your fights wisely. The longer I was a parish priest, in fact, the more I was willing to let slide. In the end of course, I discovered it was not my church to control anyway. Parish ministry, like marriage, is a give-and-take. You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find that you get what you need. All that.

But here is the thing: while every ditch is not worth dying in, knowing that helps one get clear about where it is necessary, for one's own integrity, to draw a line in the sand and take a stand. Even if one dies in that ditch. As a now somewhat crusty old Canon to the Ordinary myself, I feel strongly enough about this (if it is not yet obvious) to say that this is one of those places.

So I suggest that we ban this little phrase from our collective vocabularies. Are you being fed? Who cares! You are not a customer, but a follower of Jesus Christ! We are all called together, ordained and lay, to help do the feeding: feeding of the five thousand and feeding of the world. We are all called to take responsibility for our own spiritual growth, in fear and trembling, with God's help. And to make that move from being guests to hosts in congregations that welcome the stranger as Christ himself.

Are you being fed? That is the not the question that the manna in the wilderness of this Lenten journey teaches us to ask. It teaches us that God is steadfast and merciful and that the community is sustained by daily bread, not that Moses spoon feeds to his "parishioners," but that God gives freely to all to be gathered up each day in the long journey from slavery toward freedom.


  1. I find that the more I "feed" others, the more I am "fed"....and the more I give the more I have, partly because I find I need so much less than I thought I did. It's like coming upon the well of living water....I think that is part of the miracle of community, maybe...

  2. Yes indeed! Thanks for your comment. I agree - we are fed in so many ways: by Christ in the Eucharist, by serving others, for sure. And I do think it is the miracle of (more or less healthy) communities. The obstacle (as I see it) is when the clergy person gets defined as sole "feeder" - which is corrosive of that kind of miraculous community of which you speak (and I think of which the Bible also speaks!)