Archive for Discernment

Why School Chaplaincy: Ideals Bow to Pragmatics

Posted in Rationale with tags , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2019 by timtrue

Soon two kids became three; then three became four. All daughters. Each roughly two years apart. Yep, when our oldest turned six, Baby Number Four was about to say hello to the world.

The dream of ordination was now clouded by the necessity to get food on the table and diapers on bottoms.

On a teacher’s salary.

That’ll put one’s faith in ideals to the test!

But we managed, somehow, by teaching piano, voice, and violin students out of our home. I also took on evening jobs, usually having to do with music in some stripe of church or other.

And that was life for a while.

Treadmill.

Plodding on.

The vocational dream was still there, but now more like a phantom, leaving me to wonder often if I was merely imagining the ghost or if it was actually something of substance.

So I poured myself into my work, trying to extract value from it and not just going through the motions. I filled holes when they came up, offering to do extra work, administrative work, development work, curriculum work, as long as a few more dollars fit into the scenario.

Which is how I ended up, among other things, learning and teaching Latin. Teacher shortages were real and I was willing and energetic.

Having joined a Presbyterian Church by now, the pastor learned of my latent sense of ordination vocation and encouraged me to apply to a sister church in Texas, a church looking for a full-time staff person to focus half-time on education and half-time on music.

A chance to get back into church ministry? Heck yes! I was interested.

The interview went very well. My wife liked the idea. I was offered the position. We packed up and moved 1500 miles east.

So certain were we of this turn of events, in fact, so certain were we in our faith, that we bought a house.

This was God’s will for us, surely.

Only it wasn’t.

Somewhere between California and Texas the church’s elders decided that the timing wasn’t right to build the education program: the budget couldn’t support me.

Only they didn’t say anything to me until after we’d closed on the house.

Well, we decided the house would root us; we’d take the adventure that awaited us. An adventure, I might add, that wasn’t to include the Presbyterian Church.

So it was there–after returning to the profession where I had found success–teaching–but otherwise feeling back at Square One–no friends, no family nearby, no professional network yet–that we decided to check out the Episcopal Church.

And–why had it taken us so long?–we were home!

Here was a church that didn’t cheapen grace by calling Christianity fun. Here was a church, too, that recognized the faith as not so simple, not so black-and-white as our evangelical roots kept trying to tell us. The Christian faith, in other words, was more like real life: genuine.

That was a breath of fresh air for us.

We also liked the beauty of the music and liturgy, and a theology that included kids in the Eucharist, etc., but that’s another topic for another day.

Fast forward a year or so. By now my wife and I had been confirmed and received into the church. Then, suddenly and rashly it seemed to me, not long after the 2006 General Convention, the rector stood at the pulpit on a Sunday and announced,

“Well, the vestry and I have been having some serious discussions. We’ve come to an agreement that next Sunday will be our last. We’ll march out of here together to another building we’ve rented two blocks away. We’re leaving the Episcopal Church!”

My wife and I were floored! We’d just found our spiritual home–at long last!

So I called the bishop directly to express my concern and mentioned, “I wish I were ordained so that I could jump in here and help out.”

Truth is stranger than fiction, they say.

My words struck a chord with the bishop. In a short time I found myself entering a formal discernment process. Adult-lifelong dream, always met with obstacles; until now, when it was happening almost without any initiative or effort on my part!

By spring of 2008 the bishop asked if I was interested in relocating to attend a residential seminary.

Gulp!

By now we were expecting Baby Number 5, so I said something like, “Sounds great! But I can’t see how we could afford it–five kids in the house!”

We agreed to take a year to process, pray, daydream, and otherwise consider this new/revisited idea. Would seminary 2010 actually come to be?

During that year of daydreaming etc. it dawned on me that there is a very strong network of Episcopal schools all over the country, most of which employ a full-time chaplain, an ordained priest.

So, what if I could combine my ideal vocation with my realized one–priest with educator?

“Bishop,” I asked one day in the middle, maybe during winter, “what if I were to become a school chaplain after ordination?”

“Tim,” he said, with a look on his face that was somewhere between dejection and disapproval, “I don’t send people to seminary to become chaplains. I send them to be parochial priests.”

“Okay,” I replied, quickly realizing that pragmatism would have to trump my idealism in the moment–like it had in so many other moments over the last fifteen years–“of course! Yes. I want to be a parochial priest.”

The bishop and I never brought up the subject again.

But the idea remained lodged firmly in my psyche.

In All the Murk

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2018 by timtrue

Operation Iraqi Freedom 04-06

Mark 16:14-29

1.

I think most of you know I wasn’t raised in the church.

I came to the Christian faith through a series of tough life events during my adolescence. My parents’ divorce was the catalyst: it sent me on a spiritual quest—a quest I’m still on to this day!

Early on in my faith journey, during high school, I attended some off-campus Bible studies taught by adult leaders of local youth organizations.

These leaders weren’t ordained; nor did they claim to be Bible scholars. They simply loved Jesus and wanted to do something with their lives that made a difference. And they definitely made a difference in my life, for which I am grateful!

However, some of the lessons I learned in those early days were not the best.

Jesus, I was taught, has all the answers I’ll ever need. God will make his will known to me—his exceedingly abundant will for my life—if I’m just patient in my personal prayers and Bible reading—in my “quiet times.”

All would be made clear in time, I was taught; and if all didn’t become clear, why then it was my fault: I didn’t have enough faith; or I was being stubborn, stiff-necked, hard-hearted.

My Christian faith, I was taught, should make things black-and-white, easy-schmeasy.

In other words, I was presented with a kind of Clarity Spectrum; a way to gauge my faith.

If the road ahead seemed clear to me, then I could be sure I was walking with Jesus as I should be.

On the other hand, if the road ahead was murky, well then something was wrong. I needed to spend more time in prayer, reading and studying the Bible, going to church, confessing my sins, volunteering at the local rescue mission; or maybe I just needed to give more money.

Have you ever heard this kind of Christian teaching?

Well, it shaped me profoundly in my early spiritual quest, affecting even the many decisions I’d make each day—from the insignificant ones, like which pair of shoes I should wear; to the huge ones, like where I should go to college.

When it came to reading the Bible, I’d approach passages like today’s as if they were Shakespearian tragedies.

2.

Herod has heard about a man named Jesus walking the countryside with a group of disciples, teaching, preaching, and healing. He then worries that this man might be John the Baptist risen from the dead. And if that’s the case, he knows, his days are numbered; for it’s only a matter of time before the risen baptizer comes for revenge.

For Herod, we learn in a grisly commentary provided by the omniscient narrator, has only recently beheaded John. Herod is riddled with guilt and fear for doing something clearly, obviously, indisputably, black-and-whitely wrong.

Today’s Gospel is a lot like Hamlet!

Do you remember him? He saw a ghost—or thought he did—the ghost of his father. And this ghost tells him he was murdered by his living brother and usurper to the throne; and that Hamlet should thus take vengeance.

Which he agrees to do.

Despite its being clearly, obviously, indisputably, black-and-whitely wrong!

Now, Hamlet doesn’t follow up on his promise straight away, but waits, waffling between fear and guilt, wondering in time whether the ghost is to be trusted or is instead some demonic spirit.

And the audience is left only to wonder: Is Hamlet’s apparition imagined? Is he going insane?

What we are not left to wonder about is good and evil. These are easy for us to see. We want to shout out at the players, especially Hamlet, “Hey! Can’t you see what’s about to happen? Don’t do it! Duh!”

Likewise, in today’s Gospel, Herod has made some really dumb decisions, clear, black-and-white, good-versus-evil decisions! And each time he has chosen the wrong way!

And now—serve him right!—he’s haunted by the fear that John the Baptist’s ghost will hunt him down and find him and take vengeance on him.

Is he imagining things? Maybe he’s going insane.

Whatever the case, reading this passage through my adolescent lens, I concluded, clearly, Herod has no faith. It’s the most logical explanation. Why else would anyone make such a foolish choice to oppose such a clearly shining example of a man of God as John the Baptist?

It was the lens I knew. Namely, truth was black-and-white, right there in front of my face, if only I took the time to notice it.

3.

So, I know my early Bible study leaders meant well and all, but this easy and clear faith doesn’t seem to jibe with the larger picture of the scriptures.

Over in Luke, for instance, we’re exhorted to count the cost; and in one of his letters to the Corinthian church, Paul bemuses, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly.”

And, besides, what about before Mark wrote it all down? Was it really all that clear to Herod? Or, for that matter, John the Baptist? Was it black-and-white, as we, the audience, see so clearly today?

What was John the Baptist really like?

He ate locusts and wild honey and wore a cloak of camel’s hair and lived in the desert—so we know he was eccentric. But what else?

Remember his messages? “Repent!” Or, “You cannot have your brother’s wife!” They were full of imperatives.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never done all that well with all imperatives, all the time.

And then there was that time Jesus told John, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” What was that all about? Had Jesus offended John? Was John an easily offended person? Was he thin-skinned? Was he, maybe a little, hotheaded?

He was a man of God, yes. But men of God are imperfect people too.

And what was Herod like in real time?

Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, was a puppet of Caesar, to be sure, put in charge of an obscure province in a far corner of the empire, eventually exiled for his excessive misuse of power.

He was also half Jewish, held in suspect—perhaps a little unfairly—by both Rome and the Jews.

Even so, in this context of potentially low, low approval ratings, Herod Antipas offered many liberties to the people groups within his domain.

During his forty-two years as Tetrarch he completed numerous beneficial building campaigns, including the establishment of the city Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which became in time a Mediterranean center of Rabbinic learning.

He also showed political sensitivity, minting image-less coins, for instance, for the Jews’ use.

Overall, he continued the program of hope begun by Augustus Caesar, who had appointed him to his position.

Now, I’m not trying to defend him; history is telling the truth: he was a tyrant. I’m merely trying to make the point that Herod had to make his way through life without clarity, without an omniscient narrator shouting directions to him as he navigated his way through each day.

Same with John the Baptist.

Same with us.

4.

Tragedies—whether in the Bible or Shakespeare—appear otherwise to us spectators.

We as the audience watch; and we see clearly where the protagonists are headed long before they see it themselves. Whether to the actors on the stage or on the silver screen, we find ourselves wanting to shout out, “Hey, can’t you see what’s right in front of your face? Don’t do it! Duh!”

That’s because we, looking at their stories, which are narrated from hindsight, see much more clearly than the players do.

Everyday life is not like this!

We wake up and, before we’re even dressed, must make choices, decisions: “Which shoes am I going to wear today?” or, “Khakis or shorts?”

Or more significant ones, like: “Is today the day we move Mom into the assisted living facility?” or, “How much longer till I can afford to see the doctor again?”

When we’re living it, we’re not so easily aware of the bigger picture going on around us, of the story each of us is in the midst of.

And we sometimes end up making choices that put us in the wrong place at the right time, or the right place at the wrong time.

There is no omniscient narrator telling us, “Hey, can’t you see what’s happening? Don’t do it! Duh!”

Like John the Baptist and Herod, we are trying to navigate our way through daily life in accordance with our callings.

It’s not that the road ahead should be clear. Our faith journeys are not black-and-white. We’re not living in reality TV tragedies with omniscient narrators to guide our way.

Rather, the Christian faith is three steps forward, two steps back; or even, sometimes, two steps forward, three steps back.

Easter’s great and all; but you can’t experience resurrection without first experiencing death.

This is the real Christian story: not black-and-white, easy-schmeasy; but the two sides of death and resurrection.

Today’s Gospel focuses more on the death side.

 

And maybe this is how you feel. Maybe Christianity isn’t all Easter lilies and milk and honey and clarity for you. Maybe it’s murky, arduous, and even, at times, frightening.

If so, you’re in good company: John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, Jesus of Nazareth. . . .

If so, you’re doing nothing wrong: you do have enough faith.

God’s grace is there, in all the murk, transforming you, bringing you through death into new life.