Saturday, June 17, 2017

Corpus Christi

This past Thursday I was on retreat at Emery House with the brothers of The Society of St. John the Evangelist. On Thursday we celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi, a commemoration of the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Brother Curtis Almquist began his homily this way: "Maundy Thursday is complicated..." 

Indeed. There is lots going on in Holy Week and much to remember and reflect upon: washing of feet, betrayal, a new commandment, impending crucifixion, as well as the institution of the Lord's Supper. But the Feast of Corpus Christi gives us an opportunity to simply ponder this mystery which is so focused on ordinary things: bread and wine. 

In his homily, Brother Curtis read an extended portion from Dom Gregory Dix's (1901- 1952) The Shape of the Liturgy. It's a book I own, and have presumably read along the way and so I've probably come across these words before. But in that chapel, on the Feast of Corpus Christi 2017, in West Newbury, Massachusetts, these words struck me in a particular way. In the litany of places that Dix names where the bread has been broken and the cup shared, I can relate first-hand to many of them. So I share these words here for those who might be interested. They come from pages 774-775 of Dix's book:
At the heart of it all is the Eucharistic action, a thing of an absolute simplicity – the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread and the taking, blessing and giving of a cup of wine and water, as these were first done with their new meaning by a young Jew before and after supper with His friends on the night before He died. Soon it was simplified still further, by leaving out the supper and combining the double grouping before and after it into a single rite. So the four-action Shape of the Liturgy was found by the end of the first century.[i]  He had told His friends to do this henceforward with the new meaning “for the anamnesis of Him,” and they have done it always since.[ii]
Was ever another command so obeyed?  For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.  Men and women have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son; for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheater; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonization S. Joan of Arc – one could fill many pages with the reasons why men and women have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them.  And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei – the holy common people of God. 

[i] The “four action shape of the liturgy”: the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread (i.e., the Offertory, Consecration, Fraction and Communion).
[ii] Anamnesis, the Greek word meaning “remembrance,” literally “to call to mind again,” recorded in Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24-25.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Some End-of-Sabbatical Reflections

While I still have two weeks left on Sabbatical (and am in no way wanting to wish that time away!) I am definitely aware that this three-month journey will soon be coming to a close. I end as I began: in prayer with the brothers of The Society of St. John the Evangelist. In April, I spent Holy Week at the monastery in Cambridge and on this spectacular late spring day in New England, I've arrived at Emery House in West Newbury to reflect for a few days on what I've learned, or perhaps more accurately remembered, about ministry during this time away.

Meister Eckhart once said that if the only prayer you ever say is “thank you,” it would be enough. As I enter the home stretch, my heart feels very grateful for this amazing gift of time. I am grateful to our diocese for this generous policy and grateful to my boss, Bishop Doug Fisher for his constant encouragement. I am also grateful for my canon colleagues, Pam and Steve, who picked up some of the work left in my absence and to the entire staff at “37 Chestnut,” especially Karen Warren, who serves in an administrative support role to Pam and me.

Emotional reactions to Sabbaticals vary significantly, I've found. Even when someone says, "I wish I got a Sabbatical" they can say that in a hundred different ways. Outside of academia (where there is an expectation to produce something in terms of research) they are rare. Earlier this week I was speaking with a medical doctor who said to me, "gosh I could sure use a Sabbatical!" He didn't say it in a way that begrudged me this time, but more in a tone of a kind of holy envy. I think many people would benefit from such time, but outside of the Church it's unfortunately not something we've cultivated. I do think Europeans have a healthier attitude about work and time for more holiday, which is not the same but helps. All work and no play really does make Jack and Jill dull boys and girls and Americans are expert at this. It always makes me sad when someone who gets just two weeks vacation a year says, "I don't have time to take it!" I want to say, quite literally, "for the love of God..."

According to The Book of Common Prayer, the ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. (Page 855) All of these ministers are called “to represent Christ and [Christ’s] Church.” But we live out our several callings differently. The ministry of a priest is to do this particularly “as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.” (Page 856)

A visitor outside my hermitage as I write these notes
Four years ago, my ministry context shifted from parish ministry, where I had a pretty good idea of what this commitment looked like on a daily basis, to diocesan ministry. I have a number of friends who are bishops, including our very own, and it interests me to watch them when they shift from parochial ministry to that episcopal role. But it isn’t only their “job” that changes when they do that; their order of ministry also changes. They are still called (with all of God’s people) to represent Christ and Christ’s Church, but they do it differently. And there is some clarity in that. (And for those of us who are Myers-Briggs “TJs” as I am, we do like our clarity!)

But I’ve changed contexts while still remaining a priest. And I’m still figuring out what that means! That part about administering the sacraments and blessing and declaring pardon in the name of God – I knew what that looked like as the rector of a congregation where I had many weeks where I’d celebrate the Eucharist at least three times a week. I “hatched, matched, and dispatched” on a regular basis. Now, while I’ve committed to a pretty full preaching schedule as a canon, I may go a month without presiding at the Eucharist. This has been an adjustment. It's not bad; it just raises some existential (or at least vocational) questions.

The big theological question I took into this Sabbatical was this: how is my priestly ministry taking shape in this time and place as a member of Bishop Fisher’s executive team? This has been about more than the day-to-day work itself, which I thoroughly enjoy and find meaningful and for which I think I'm well suited. Some days I’ve wondered, though, how (or if) this work would be different if I were a layperson. And in fact I have colleagues in the wider Church (including Steve) who share this work as lay persons.  Although there are lots of “other duties as assigned by the Bishop,” the piece of the work that most feeds my soul is the part that deals with clergy transitions. It’s not just about running an ecclesiastical for a congregation looking for a priest. It’s an opportunity for a congregation to hit re-set in a way and to ask bigger missional questions. There are obstacles (namely fear and anxiety) to doing that hard work, but there is also great opportunity for transformation and trusting the Holy Spirit. There is an invitation to enter a time of mutual growth and learning and this is pretty rewarding and exciting work that, as I said, suits me well. But in what ways is this an exercise of my priestly ministry? How is serving as a canon a way of living out the vows I took as a priest?

I come back to that full BCP definition which is about more than the sacraments and I wonder if in fact all of life is meant to be lived as “sacramental.” It’s not just about what happens at the altar or the font with those outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. It's about living sacramentally, about becoming more and more of an outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual grace. It's perhaps about how we approach the work God has given us to do. This has been a discovery (or at least a rediscovery) from this time away for me. 

Also, those other parts of being a priest, like pastoral ministry and sharing oversight with the bishop, have been greatly accentuated in my work as Canon to the Ordinary. Congregations going through transitions need a pastor, even when they have an interim in place. They need someone who can hold hope for them that God isn’t finished with them yet, even when they may be scared. And clergy need pastoral support too, precisely because the work is so challenging. As a parish priest I considered myself a team player, serving in various diocesan roles over fifteen years, including as a member of Diocesan Council, and as Chair of the Commission on Ministry. But now I wake up every day and get to do something to support the bishop’s ministry. I have a voice in his role in “overseeing the Church” and quite honestly I see the Church differently than I did as a parish priest.

How so? Parishes are by definition, “parochial.” They are focused, rightly, on a specific community and the challenges that particular community faces in a place and time. Being the rector of a suburban parish in the 1950s simply isn't the same as serving an urban parish in the twenty-first century. But in the midst of the many challenges of parish ministry, clergy can lose sight of the greater vision as they wrestle with all of those local challenges. Parish ministry can become quite isolating, especially if one is not careful and intentional.

As a priest, then, I’ve been stretched in so many new ways these past four years by seeing this larger context, even beyond our diocese. I recall even now something a retired bishop said to me when I accepted this position; essentially that seeing ministry from the perspective of the diocese radically shifted how he understood the work. It has been so for me, too.  And I am very grateful for that even as I am still learning to embrace it.

Being a member of the bishop’s team also gives me a place from which to “proclaim the gospel.” (Sometimes, even with words.) So while it’s true that I don’t stand behind the altar as much as I once did, I have come to realize (and claim with renewed purpose) that this doesn’t make me less of a priest. Just as being a priest is about more than putting on a collar, so it is also about more than presiding at the Eucharist. Other aspects of my priestly ministry are in fact now being accentuated and that has been an interesting discovery for me over these past three months. And all of it is offered to the glory of God.

So I am (almost) ready to return to work with a renewed sense of purpose, and feeling restored and recommitted to the work that God has given the  Episcopal Church in central and western Massachusetts at this time and place, and given me to share in. Always with God's help. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Staying and Growing

Anyone with more than a casual interest in the music of Bruce Springsteen knows that his relationship with his father was, to say the least, complicated. Early in his career (1978) Bruce wrote a song that was the first of many references to that relationship, entitled "Adam Raised a Cain." If you don't know it (or even if you do!) you can listen to a live version here.

The key lines in that song, which I've probably listened to hundreds of times, are in that first verse:

We were prisoners of love, a love in chains.
He was standin' in the door; I was standin' in the rain,
with the same hot blood burning in our veins,
Adam raised a Cain. 

I just finished reading Springsteen's autobiography, Born to Run, which I have savored slowly. As a long time fan who owns all of his albums, has seen him about a dozen times live, watched and read many interviews over the years, I came to this book already knowing a lot about Bruce's life. What struck me the most, however, was how well he describes the challenge of being a person "born to run" and one who also very much wanted to learn how to "grow and stay" by tending to relationships at home.

Bruce says again and again in the book that he knows that his life as a rock star, while energizing for him and his fans, is not his "real" life. He was searching for a real life and a real life requires working through relationships with family members in order to better understand who we are.

Bruce writes beautifully about the birth of his three children and trying to do the work of being a better father than his own dad was. He seems to have successfully done that work with his wife, Patti Scialfa as they have built a life together. But along the way, the relationship that Bruce probably needed to heal the most was with his father, who suffered from debilitating mental illness that affected the entire family and in large measure shaped (and scarred) who Bruce was and is today.

For me, the most important and poignant short paragraph in the book comes at the top of page 413 of a 508 page book. These are words that perhaps every person in their own way must come to grips with, since no parent has ever passed on only her or his "good traits" to their children.
We honor our parents by carrying their best forward and laying the rest down. By fighting and taming the demons that laid them low and now reside in us. It's all we can do if we're lucky. I have a wife I love, a beautiful daughter and two handsome sons. We are close. We do not suffer for the alienation and confusion I experienced in my family. Still, the seeds of my father's troubles lie buried deep in our we have to watch. 
I know that musical taste is personal and not everyone is quite the fan of Springsteen that I am. This is what makes the world go round, of course. But what I respect about Bruce goes way beyond the stage. He has spent his life both running and staying, in search of integrity. He knows that "real life" isn't about what happens on the stage, but in the daily decisions we make to be present to those we love and to forgive and to begin again. Bruce has learned a lot of this the hard way. Most of us do.

On a much smaller scale, in my own work as a priest and in the work I do with clergy, it is easy to make the same mistake: to think our "ministries" define who we are; to think we are the "role" both when we are being adored and when we are being criticized by parishioners from one week to the next. We work on much smaller stages than Bruce does, but most of us also yearn for approval and those positive comments at the door after a good sermon.

But in truth we are all called to work first at simply becoming more human, to work at becoming who we are meant to be, within the circumstances of our own unique situations. Adam and Eve still raise imperfect children who then do the best they can do with what life has delivered. Always with God's help.The autobiography explores that human challenge of growing up, of learning to grow and stay with one another, one day at a time. That goes way beyond rock and roll, and also to the very heart of it.