Archive for life

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.

Christmas from the Chronicles

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2018 by timtrue

John 1:1-18

1.

The Gospel of John is different: John does not begin by telling the story of the human person Jesus.

Recall, the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke begin with stories of the birth of Jesus—in vivid, nitty-gritty, even messy detail. A son is to be born of a virgin, an unmarried maiden. How scandalous!

Luke expands the story to relate that this maiden, Mary, visits her older cousin Elizabeth in some backwater part of the Empire—just two women, laughing and singing—marveling, really—that God should show them such favor at opening their wombs.

The Gospel of Mark is a little different. It begins not with Jesus’ birth but with his adult ministry: John the Baptist sets the stage and all at once Jesus is defeating the devil, proclaiming repentance, and healing the broken.

And so, no matter what else is going on in the wide world, these three Evangelists remind us that God is in the nitty-gritty details of our lives.

But the Gospel of John is different: John does not begin with the human person of Jesus; John begins, instead, with divine Jesus: the logos, the Word.

And in using this phrase—in the beginning—John connects us not to the other three Gospels but to the very beginning of the Bible, to the creation of all things.

Today, then, we’re not going to focus on little Jesus, meek and mild; baby Jesus, Christmas child. Instead, we will marvel with John on this first Sunday after Christmas—marvel at the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

And we will marvel together not just through the Gospel of John; but to help us I’m enlisting another, modern evangelist who also marveled at the Word made flesh: C. S. Lewis; and, more particularly, through his beloved children’s book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

2.

So, to start us off, most of you know that I’m a fan of The Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve read it aloud to my kids—all seven books in the series—so many times I’ve lost count.

The first book in the series is called The Magician’s Nephew.

In it, two children fantastically end up in a faraway world, Narnia, on the very day of its birth. What they witness—C. S. Lewis’s explanation of “in the beginning”—is creation through song.

At first all is darkness and silence. Then the children become aware of an almost inaudible music all around them. It’s nothing like any music we’ve ever heard on earth; but there’s no other way to describe it. It’s music.

Almost immediately stars begin to appear in the sky. As more and more celestial bodies appear, the music increases in volume and intensity; and the children realize that the music and the appearance of the stars are connected: the music reaches a sustained note for a time just before a star appears; then it changes pitch, sustains, and another star appears.

Loud and strong now, the children realize that this isn’t just any old music, but song: these are words they are hearing, sung words; in some language—some beautiful language—they don’t know.

And all at once, as if in response to the loud and strong song, a moon appears in the sky; followed by a still louder and stronger song and the sudden appearance of the sun.

Dazzled by such a bright, young sun, the children look away; and in the distance see a figure approaching. As their eyes adjust, they realize with fear that the approaching figure is a lion (whose name, they will soon learn, is Aslan). But they do not retreat, for their fear is overcome by wonder: the lion is singing too; and its voice is loudest of all!

At the creation of Narnia, Aslan sings all things into existence: Aslan, an allegorical Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word. And God said—or, maybe, and God sangLet there be light. And there was.

This is how C. S. Lewis imagined it.

But why not? John’s Gospel is highly poetic. Why not build on John’s image of poetry by imagining all things being sung into existence?

The Word was with God. And the Word was God. And the Word—spoken, written, sung, does it matter?—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.

3.

Next, a prominent theme we find in today’s passage—indeed, throughout the Gospel of John—is light:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

This is another creation connection. For what was the first thing God spoke in the creation account? The earth was formless and void; and darkness covered everything. And God said, “Let there be light.”

And—would you know it?—a stark contrast between darkness and light shows up in the seventh and final book of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle.

Here the reader witnesses the final day of Narnia, as it is snuffed out forever.

All creation is summoned to Aslan. And by all I mean all: sun, moon, stars, people, animals, plants, even mythical beasts who have long lain dormant awaiting this final day. All creation came into being by the Word of God; now all creation must answer to its Creator.

And at last, after days or weeks or maybe somehow only a few minutes, all of creation has passed by Aslan and looked into his face; all creation has gone on either to Aslan’s left or his right. And the reader gets one last glimpse through a doorway of the old Narnia.

But the reader sees nothing, only blackness. For through the doorway there is only absolute darkness—no more sun, no more moon, no more stars, no more life of any sort whatsoever—can you imagine?

And with absolute darkness comes absolute zero. The world of Narnia that once thrived is now dead. There is no source of heat, no source of light, no source of life.

At creation, light did away with darkness. It provided heat. It provided life.

At Christmas a new light shines forth. Christmas brings new life to this old creation, shining far brighter than all the Christmas lights in the world ever could!

4.

One more: another theme we find in John’s prologue, and thus another connection between creation and Christmas, is life. Marvel of all marvels, the Word of God, the light that enlightens the world, the source of new life, has actually become flesh and dwells among us! Amazing!

But where? Where does the logos of God dwell among us today? Where do we expect to encounter Jesus today? Isn’t it right here, in the church?

But in The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan shows up in every book. And it’s not always as people expect—it’s not even always in the flesh. He shows up on the page of a book; a person sees him briefly out of the corner of her eye; or he’s there in someone’s dream; or, in one book, he appears as a lamb.

He’s not a tame lion, you know. In other words, we cannot predict when and where he’ll show up next.

But that’s just John’s point—and C. S. Lewis’s! Jesus might show up where we expect him to, right here in church. Then again, he might not. Haven’t you ever felt that way, that you went through all the Sunday motions but still he never came?

But then there are those days—ah, marvelous!—when and where we’re not looking for him at all; yet there he is, right in our midst—in a conversation with a stranger, at the dinner table laughing with friends, or at a wedding when the host has just desperately run out of wine for the guests.

Sometimes Jesus doesn’t show up when and where we expect him to; and sometimes we don’t expect him to show up at all but he does anyway!

We can’t put a box around Jesus. He’s not a tame lion.

 

Well, that’s it; that’s all I have for you today. No practical take-home lesson—no quick-and-easy three steps to eternal happiness or whatever. Instead, today we simply marvel together.

The very logos of God did show up at that first Christmas, so long ago; in a way that no one expected—in a backwater part of the Roman Empire. And he continues to dwell with us today in ways we can’t even begin to realize.

The Word is flesh and dwells among us. We have crossed the great threshold. The old is passing away; the new is here!

Rekindled Friendships, Connections, and a Regret

Posted in Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2014 by timtrue

In recent weeks my Facebook account has seen a surge in childhood friendships rekindled.  Friends I haven’t seen or heard from in more than thirty years are now people with whom I am enjoying daily conversations, usually over an old photo like this one:

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There’s a lot of catching up to be had.  Significant amounts of water pass under the bridge over the course of three decades.  Marriages have been started and ended; families have been raised; life has been enjoyed and endured.  Through it all I’m really wishing I could track each of these old friends down and enjoy an evening of dinner and good ol’ face-to-face conversation.  And maybe it will happen in time.  But for now the virtual world will have to suffice.

My favorite thread so far is now more than a hundred comments long, picking up something like seventeen of us childhood pals along the way.  After lots of stories told and commented upon, a friend altogether out of the blue except for some comment I made forty or so posts ago writes, simply, “I’m still tripping out that Tim’s a priest.”

Ha!  Well, me too.  In many respects anyway.  But in other ways not so much.

I’ve written elsewhere about the idyllic setting in which I grew up (see “Background” tab).  Many a day I can remember just sitting out on the lawn, my back against an avocado tree, soaking in the southern California sun and contemplating.  It doesn’t really matter what: the way the sun played on the mellow green leaves rustling in the wind; a jet trail in the sky; how the hens shuffled their feet and simultaneously jerked their necks as they foraged for food; whatever–I was contemplating the world, God’s world, and my place in it, much as the ancient poet Vergil contemplated his world beneath his bucolic beech.  Only (unlike Vergil) I wrote nothing down.  These contemplations were only for my own memories, to reflect upon as I grew older, like I’m doing now.

I was always a bit more esoteric and pensive than the rest of the group.  I asked questions they didn’t care or think to ask; questions about pain and sorrow and happiness and joy and the differences between them; questions about good and evil and purpose and value; questions epistemological and ontological; questions most nine year-olds didn’t consider.

I was also a bit more in my own world.  Sure we had our alphas.  I wasn’t one of them.  But I was much more of an omega than a beta (or delta or gamma or . . .); for to their chagrin I never really followed the alphas like my brother did.  I did my own thing.

Like figuring out that grapes made perfect ammo for pvc blowguns.  It was especially fun when I showed one of the alphas what I had come up with–by shooting him in the belly from about fifty feet away–and he led us into all-out neighborhood boy warfare.  The original paint-pellet guns, only with grapes instead of pellets; and pvc pipe instead of guns.  Anyway, I felt affirmed in my creativity and innovativeness when an alpha took my idea and ran with it–effectively so!

Not that an alpha can’t make a good priest.  I believe that one can–in theory anyway; don’t know that I’ve ever seen it in actual practice.

Okay, to be fair, I have seen it.  I even know a few.  But it’s a hard balance to maintain.

A bit of a tangent here: but the church today seems to value priests who are successful and effective leaders.  Those who can develop programs and lure in the numbers, or (especially) those who can secure great big pledges, and lots of them at that, are the valuable priests to the Church.  But really!  Shouldn’t the priests, the spiritual leaders of communities, be more about things like spiritual disciplines, prayer, and formation (i. e., knowledge, wisdom, contemplation, introspection, etc.)?  It’s hard enough to be one or the other; a true rarity is the priest who is both.

As for me, I fit into the second category.  Leave the first in the hands of the vestry, I say.  Anyway, I was that way as a kid; and I’m still that way now.

One more.  As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my great grandmother.  She lived a quarter-mile down the street.  I mowed her lawn every other week or so throughout my childhood, pulled weeds in her garden, and enjoyed lots of home-baked goodies from her kitchen.  I have my mom to thank for this Granny time, by the way; though at the time I didn’t think anything of it: it was just part of the routine.

Now, though, as a priest I regularly visit shut-ins: those who are either too old or too frail to make it to church regularly.  I find this work very enjoyable.  And I’m a natural at it (thanks to Mom).

A few days ago, for instance, I visited an elderly woman suffering from the ravages of dementia.  After several minutes of barely intelligible conversation and feeling as if this was going nowhere, I moved to the piano I’d noticed in her living room.  There, on top, I grabbed a book at random from a stack and opened it and began to play.  Smiles, exclamations of happiness, applause, and even laughter followed.

I’d made a connection!  And the idea harked from childhood, when I used to do the same for my granny.

But a regret surfaced too from these rekindled-friendship conversations.  A friend’s younger sister died a year ago, I learned (very) recently, after a lifelong battle with cancer.

I remember her clearly, vividly even.  She was only a couple years younger than I.  But at nine she had no hair.  That seemed strange to me at the time, 1979 or so.  But rather than make easy conversation or simply be present, I didn’t know how to act around her and therefore avoided her most of the time.

Oh how I regret this now!  Now, when I spend hours of my week in close contact with people like her–beautiful souls–who love the presence of a smile and the joy of a story just as much as anyone else!  Oh, why wasn’t I more of a friend to her then?  And now she’s gone!

If only I could turn the clock back thirty-five years and do it again!

May her soul rest in peace.