The Priest in the Picture

October 4, 2012 — Leave a comment

Early in my time as a priest, one of my mentors (who had been ordained nearly 50 years at the time) said to me, “Get used to people taking pictures. Don’t fight it. They’re simply trying to capture the moment, whether it be a baptism, wedding or special event. Moments are fleeting and life speeds by. Besides, one day, long after the event, you may come across a picture someone else has taken of you and wonder, ‘Who was that priest in the picture?’ You might even learn something from asking that question.”

At the time, I neither agreed with nor understood what he was trying to tell me. His wisdom ran counter to the prevailing wisdom I had received from plenty of other clergy. Their admonitions included numerous reminders to be resolute in forbidding “photography of any sort” in a liturgy, since such a distraction would spoil the dignity of the proceedings. Everyone else had either a story of a liturgy ruined by enthusiastic shutter bugs or the time when they had halted a liturgy to call out someone for snapping a quick pic. My mentor’s advice seemed too sympathetic, too accommodating. I wondered if he had gone soft after almost a half a century dealing with non-churchy people at weddings and baptisms.

Over the years, especially with the advent of the ubiquitous smartphone, I’ve modified my own stance about pictures in liturgy. I simply ask these days that folks don’t use a flash — a small paparazzi at a baptism plays havoc with my astigmatism! For the most part, people oblige and I’ve made my peace  with that accommodation. Folks get their pictures and I don’t come across as a grouch. But I had never had occasion to ask the question, “Who was that priest in the picture?” Until yesterday.

Almost four years ago, a young woman at Trinity lost her fight with the debilitating, horrific and incurable auto-immune disorder known as scleroderma. Skita was already sick with the disease when I became her pastor in 2004. The disease took many things from her through the years, but it did not take her optimism, her love for her family, her faith in God, or her resolute spirit. Through multiple hospitalizations, plenty of trips to the ICU, more needles, tubes and meds than most of us would be willing to bear, Skita, would often say to me, “Don’t forget I’m praying for you and for all the folks at Trinity. God is good.” The day of her funeral was a testimony that Skita’s shorter-than-it-should-have-been life had touched many. The church building was packed for the liturgy and the procession of automobiles to the cemetery stretched out for over a mile.

Today is Skita’s birthday. She would have been 37 years old. Yesterday, Skita’s mom, who now lives in their native Liberia, posted some pictures. PIctures from the funeral. To be honest, the funeral liturgy for Skita was so joy-filled and moving, I didn’t even know pictures were being taken. Certainly, for most Americans, funerals are what we try to forget, not remember. The picture that called me up short was taken at the cemetery, right at the moment I was pronouncing the words of the Committal, “…ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her, the Lord make his face to shine upon her and be gracious to her, the Lord lift up his countenance upon her and give her peace. Amen.”

Who was that priest in the picture?

A priest who had been pastored by a parishioner. A priest who had been taught the power of prayer — not because prayer took away the pain, but because prayer made it possible to endure the pain. A priest who had witnessed a family’s love and devotion to each other through years of hardship and challenges that would have caused many a family to split asunder. A priest who had been schooled in how to die with grace and in hope. A priest who was wiser because of a young woman who lived a wisdom beyond her years. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Skita had given me a crash course in Christian hope — not the sort of hope longing for a happy ending, but the hope looking forward to a new beginning. The picture brought it all back to me.

Just last week, my mentor priest friend died. He was 91. I am thankful for Fr. Bill and for Skita and the lessons they taught me. They offered me “embodied” lessons — the sort of lessons not found in books or articulated in seminary lectures. They were living, breathing testaments to the love of God and the faithfulness of Jesus. May both of these saints rest in peace and rise in glory.

Sometimes in the rush of life, it’s easy to forget all we’ve learned and how we’ve changed. Sometimes we lose sight of who our teachers have been along the way. Sometimes we forget that following Jesus isn’t an individual project; we are constantly being taught by our sisters and brothers in the faith. Sometimes we need a reminder. Today’s reminder for me came in a picture. Thank God.

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