Limits

November 28, 2011 — Leave a comment

Throughout the time I’ve served as a parish priest, I have shared repeatedly (OK, ad nauseum) my resistance to the role of rector as the epitome of an ecclesiastical functionary. “The last thing I want to become,” I have intoned, “is a “branch manager for Jesus”. I simply couldn’t picture myself  spending decades of my life strolling around congregations with the metaphorical organizational oil can, applying pious platitudes in strategic locations to make sure the wheels of parochial life spun along unimpeded, so that the franchise fee (diocesan assessment) could flow up the line to keep “headquarters” happy.

At the root of my admittedly exaggerated pronouncements was an unsettling suspicion. I worried that through the decades of its existence, my own corner of the Church Universal (the Episcopal Church variety) had substituted being a smoothly operating, mild mannered, non-profit service organization which “helped” people (mostly pledge-paying constituents) for the hell-busting, darkness-invading, principality-toppling, turn-the-world-upside-down through the power of the Holy Spirit, get-in-or-get-out movement that the New Testament described and early Church leaders envisioned. I didn’t know what sort of priest I would become, but “company man” was not on the list of vocational aspirations.

The more I said stuff like the foregoing, the more certain I was of my sincerity, and the more I was blinded to the fact I was becoming the very thing I so vehemently rejected. Yesterday, I ran headlong into the wall of my own limitations. My formation as a priest gave me a solid grounding in biblical interpretation, Christian theology and Church history. I know how to lead worship, design a liturgy and prepare a sermon. I can teach a Sunday School class. I can write carefully worded letters and newsletter articles. I learned the importance of the “non-answer” answer, so that I could appear to say something when not much was being said. I learned active listening skills and the rudiments of how to “be present” with people in the times of trial and struggle that come along with living this life. Every bit of that formation was necessary. Every smidgen of it valuable.

Except.

Except that my formation as a priest reinforced the Greek-philosophy-inspired bifurcation of life into two separate worlds (“spiritual” and “everything else”). Except that my formation presupposed I would mostly be dealing with the “spiritual” issues of faith and doubt, without considering how those issues might impinge upon decisions people would make about how to spend their time, invest their money or raise their children. Except that my formation assumed that as a white, middle class cleric I would serve a mostly white, middle class congregation, which would deal with mostly white, middle class, suburban issues (a.k.a.: “First World Problems”!).

For all of my expensive training (over $100,000 worth, counting tuition, living expenses and supplies), I wasn’t schooled in concrete problem-solving; rather I was trained to “live with the questions” and “embrace ambiguity”.  As wonderful as my time in seminary was, it offered me little guidance about how to deal with the complexities of people’s lives when those needs outpace the ability of a local congregation (or even a local municipality) to meet. How is any clergy person supposed to traverse the path of “pastoral care” when good listening skills are exhausted and the conundrum of pain and suffering remain? How is a priest to “be present” with the realization that very little he will say (or do) can untangle the circumstances, effect meaningful reconciliation or provide a long term solution to the insoluble problems so many people live with day in and day out?

Thankfully, people trust me enough as their pastor to share the difficulties of their lives and their relationships. They even assume there is some value in sharing those things. Perhaps a few of them believe I have some sort of ability to provide practical assistance in times of need. I confess, given what people seem to be dealing with in their “everything-else-lives”, knowing how to sing the Magnifcant, load a thurible with incense or find the date of Easter in 2025 using the table at the back of the Book of Common Prayer seem arcane bits of knowledge at best.

Faced with these limitations of my own formation and my own innate “skill set”, I can now fully understand the temptation toward administration, “vision casting”, and “restructuring”. I can also see why tweaking the personnel on a committee or learning the latest fundraising trick is so seductive. I think I finally understand why so many priests wind up cleaning the bathrooms, cutting the lawn or shoveling snow. Sitting with the realization of one’s limitations is unsettling to say the least.

No preaching about the Church prevailing against the gates of hell means anything until people are busted out of their own private hells. Singing about Christ being the Light of the World in liturgy doesn’t mean much for people who dwell in the darkness of depression and dependency or in the shadow of violence. Wrestling against the principalities of the world sounds like a waste of time to the person who is wrestling with a growling stomach or can’t find a warm place to sleep or hasn’t had a hug from a loved one in decades. Turning the world upside down for Jesus is all well and good for people with nothing else to do, but what about those in our midst who long to have their worlds right side up for a change?

Once upon a time, the Apostle Paul had a painful situation (he called it a “thorn in the flesh”). On a number of times, he prayed for deliverance and relief from the difficulty. The response he received from the Almighty went something like this, “My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Far be it from me to compare my frailties as a pastor to the sufferings Paul endured, but I do think there’s a “word of the Lord” in this passage for me today.

Maybe today’s task is to admit my ignorance, uncertainty and ineptitude and remain open to the Spirit’s guidance and trust for God’s grace. Maybe I can put aside my big picture idealism, leave the salvation of the world God’s in hands where it belongs and do the work I’ve been given to do with gladness and some focus (singleness of heart). The provisions I’ve got for this work of priesthood are bread and wine, water and oil, the Scriptures and the prayers. Sometimes these provisions seem meager in the face of so much need (like crumbs scattered on an ocean of famine). But these provisions will have to do, and for the record, these have been the Church’s only provisions for centuries!

Maybe my work isn’t about fixing stuff — maybe it really is about sitting in the brokenness — beginning with my own.

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