Archive for life is messy

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.

Rather Grayer than Black and White

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2015 by timtrue

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John 21:25-36

 

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,

But the fire is so delightful;

And since we’ve no place to go,

Let is snow, let it snow, let it snow.

 

But it doesn’t snow in Yuma.  Ever.  Except once, in December, 1932.  So, we change the lyrics:

 

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,

But your lips are so delightful;

And since marriage is such bliss,

Let us kiss, let us kiss, let us kiss.

 

Whatever the case—whether we’re carefree in front of a fire or sharing a blissful moment with a loved one—’tis the season, yeah?

Shiny toys line the aisles of local stores; seasonal specials advertise themselves from flashy, attention-grabbing signs; and catchy tunes piped through unseen speakers get us tapping our feet and daydreaming of sugar plums.

Holiday cheer envelopes us.  We lose ourselves in the carefree, blissful nature of it all.

But then we come to church.  And we hear today’s Gospel.

 

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

 

And we scratch our heads.

Why, we wonder, is the holiday cheer all around us so carefree and blissful; yet the Church’s message of Advent is so doomy and gloomy?  I mean—I don’t know about you, but—if I had the choice I think I’d rather be out with the carefree and blissful bunch than in here.

Many of you know that as a boy my parents divorced.

I was on the cusp of thirteen years old, just about to finish seventh grade, when I heard my older brother upstairs crying.  He wasn’t one to cry typically, so I ran up to see what was the matter.  And there he stood with my mom, who had just told him—I was about to learn—that she and my dad were separating.  They got along fine, sure; they just didn’t have much in common anymore.

For the next few years, all became doom and gloom for me.  I stopped running with the track team.  I stopped taking piano lessons.  I started listening to Pink Floyd.  A lot of Pink Floyd!  Life seemed desperate.

Then I learned of a group meeting on my high school campus for Bible study.  Maybe I’d find some answers here, I thought.  So I began attending.  And, yes, here were some answers.  In fact—the leaders encouraged me—here were all the answers I needed.  The Bible, they said, the B-I-B-L-E: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.

Now all became clear.  It was all black and white, right here before my eyes.  And whatever questions the Bible didn’t address—well, if they weren’t good enough for Jesus then they weren’t good enough for me.

Life might be messy, but here I’d found my holiday cheer.  I could walk down the aisles of life tapping my feet to piped in music and otherwise telling myself that all was carefree bliss.

But as I grew in my faith I began to understand that the Christian life isn’t all carefree bliss.  Marriage isn’t all about sitting on the couch and losing oneself in the kisses of another.  Relationships aren’t all shiny and catchy and sugar plums and holiday cheer.  Sometimes disagreements surface.  Sometimes disagreements and differences become irreconcilable.  Differences between Christians!  Christians, who both love and serve God and desire to glorify Christ in all they do!

Was it all therefore a sham, I wondered, some sophisticated Santa story to dupe the world into believing an unrealistic ideal; when really, deep down, we all knew—all the grownups knew at any rate—that really there is no such ideal?  Not in this life, anyway?  That the world is all just going to burn up someday?  That it’s all just gloom and doom, so what’s the use?

So: Good grief!  What’s the real Advent story?  Is it carefree bliss or doom and gloom?

The Advent story—especially in this first week of Advent, when Christ the King Sunday is still fresh in our memories—looks to Christ’s comings. Yes, comings, I said: in the plural.  Meaning both of them.  During Advent, we look back to his birth; but also ahead to his second coming.  And thus we live in a tense contrast between cheer and gloom.

Cheer: so we shop and laugh and tap our feet to catchy tunes and sip hot chocolate with friends and decorate our homes.

And gloom: we go to church and hear of apocalyptic portents that will come upon the world and all creation: no one—not a star, planet, person, tree, or insect—will escape.

Advent is a time of tension.

By the way, we see just this contrast in various Christian churches and denominations.

Some churches focus almost exclusively on Christ’s first coming, his birth, his Incarnation.  These churches are generally optimistic in their overall outlook.  They see their calling as making the present world a better place.  And so they go out into the world—whether through outreach or evangelism—with ready answers.  Jesus is all the world really needs, they reason; and so, like Bob the Builder, they ask, “Can we fix it?” and they answer themselves, “Yes, we can!”

Other churches focus excessively on Christ’s second coming, when this age we know will come to an end.  It’s going to end, they say; and there’s not much we can do about it.  What we can do is make sure our individual walks with Christ are up to par.  And so these churches tend to focus more on individual discipleship.  Instead of going out into the world, the church becomes a haven of rest, or shelter, from the world.  These churches are generally pessimistic in their overall outlook.

But—hold the phone!—it’s not so clear as all that.  It’s not so black and white.  It’s not either holiday cheer or doom and gloom.  Advent reminds us of this.  In Advent, we are living in a very real tension between the two.

When we look at the Advent story closely, we see that Jesus’ comings are not so much about either cheer or gloom as they are, collectively, about hope.

As followers of Jesus Christ, hope is our reason to rejoice despite the truth that we live in a world that’s falling apart.

No one said the Christian life would be easy.

That was my mistake.  As a recent convert, I thought everything was crystal clear.  Jesus gave me all the answers I needed, right?  The other questions weren’t worth asking.  I had the Bible.  What else did I need?

And so I set out with my church to change the world.  We had all the answers we needed; so should the world.  We were determined to fix everything.

But as time went on this thinking discouraged the dickens out of me.  I was confronted by some of life’s messy realities.  Answers weren’t easy to come by.  Sometimes, no answers were available at all.

So I flip-flopped: I lost all idealism in the present and placed it only in the future and joined a church which believed and taught the same.  This world would all burn someday and Jesus would return to rapture all his faithful followers away with a trumpet blast.  And the sooner the better, as far as we were concerned!  We were walking with Jesus.  That was all that mattered.

But there is a middle way—a way between the first and second advents of Jesus Christ, a way between idealistic cheer and excessive gloom.  That middle way is hope.

Hope is about addressing fears and ideals in context, without focusing too much on one or the other.  Hope looks both ways—both going out into the world to share the good news and deeds of Jesus Christ; and engaging in personal spiritual disciplines, in growth as disciples.  Unlike idealistic cheer and excessive gloom, hope is authentic.

But it is all rather grayer than black and white.

Life is messy.  Following Christ doesn’t give us all the answers.  But we do have hope.

That’s what Advent shows us.