A prodigal priest

This is a safe place for Episcopal priests who are forbidden to practice their vocation. It's a place for conversation among women and men who know the pain of deposition from ordained ministry for whatever reason, but especially for sexual misconduct of whatever sort.

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Location: Southwest, United States

Some years ago, I searched high and low for Web sites that dealt with the issues of deposed clergy. Found none. I wasn't sure what I wanted to know from the Internet. I did know I had something in common with others who had been deposed, and that we might have something to say to each other. Maybe what I wanted to hear was just a word to persuade me that I wasn't going crazy, that this nagging, centripedal tug toward ministry was not an aberration. Actually, I'm still not sure it's not. In 10 years of wrestling with these issues, I haven't had a conversation with another deposed Episcopal priest. My guess is that -- as I did for many years -- they're either hiding out or have fled to such far reaches that my circle of interests and friends will never find them. Then again, maybe not. My hope is that a few deposed clergy will come in from the cold for a conversation about life after deposition.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Misquoting Jesus

We’re going to hear a lot in coming months about a scholar named Bart Ehrman and his new book, “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.” It was published last month, but I’ve heard about it only in the past week or so.

The book discloses for the general public what scholars have long known, that the manuscript tradition of the New Testament includes thousands of variant readings, most of which are insignificant but some of which represent significant alterations in theological perspective. (For example, see Bruce Terry's Web site.) Most of the variant readings seem to be inevitable mistakes that occurred through generations of copying documents by hand. Some, however, are clearly intentional and represent efforts by individual scribes to alter a text to agree with a certain belief or point of view.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve heard Ehrman interviewed about it by Terry Gross, (also by Diane Rehm) and I’m persuaded that he’s a reputable scholar who knows what he’s talking about. He’s certainly not presenting a half-baked sensational theory, because the facts of this case have been known in scholarship for generations.

We’re going to be hearing a lot about Ehrman because the Christian evangelical movement is not going to sit still for a book that examines the Bible as though it were produced by fallible human beings. Many Christians believe that the Bible is an inerrant text and literally true. Ehrman, however, apparently argues from what is indisputably known of the manuscript tradition that we do not and can not know what the original authors wrote, because the original documents no longer exist and that it is clear from what survives that significant changes were made for the better part of 1,500 years.

Ehrman is chairman of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He’s written several other books about Christian origins. He was reared an Episcopalian but became an evangelical in high school. He attended the Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, both mainstay evangelical schools.

He says, however, that when he began reading Greek manuscripts of the New Testament he realized how many variants there are in the manuscript tradition. This was troubling to someone who believed the Bible is an inerrant text for knowing and understanding the will of God. As a scholar, he moved out of the evangelical camp to a more liberal view. He earned his divinity degree and doctorate at Princeton. He is no longer a Christian believer, preferring to call himself “a happy agnostic.”

Neither interview I heard addressed what, to me, would be an important question. The same scholarship that discloses and appreciates the difficulties presented by scribal tampering with New Testament manuscripts also has struggled for the past two centuries to distill from the manuscript tradition the most likely readings of Christian scripture. This is an enormously complex field of scholarship, technical in every since of the word, but also wide in trying to understand not only the language but the world in which the New Testament writings were produced and, apparently, transformed by a Christian tradition often at war with itself over doctrine. While nothing is settled and scholarly debate continues, do we not now have as clear an idea as we’ve ever had of the New Testament authors’ original intentions?

Ehrman likely would say no, because we can’t know what those intentions were. The original manuscripts are long gone. I’m not sufficiently capable as a scholar to debate the point, but I do believe in progress and with that Ehrman probably would agree. The more we know about how the New Testament developed, the more reliable our text will become and, presumably, the deeper our knowledge of it and our Christian tradition.

That doesn’t mean all of our cherished beliefs will be ratified by deeper knowledge of tradition and scripture; but I do believe that such knowledge presents us with an opportunity for letting the Spirit lead us into all truth.

I hope Christians will resist the temptation to condemn Ehrman’s book, and certainly to refrain from disparaging the author himself. It will be a temptation because the leadership of the evangelical movement is likely to condemn the book and disparage the author, but there is no charity in that. Ehrman is not the enemy, and ridiculing him will not change the facts of the case, facts Christian scholars have known for a long time. We may find fault with Ehrman’s interpretation of the facts, but that’s no more than an opportunity for conversation and, perhaps, for agreeing to disagree.

We Christians have spent far too much of our history at war with one another. I suggest we take this new controversy -- and Ehrman's book is controversial -- not as a challenge to our faith but as an opportunity to explore the living tradition that has brought it to us and continues to enflame our hearts with the love of God in Christ.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Loss

A friend has invited me to give an Advent talk about spirituality and loss. I guess I'm supposed to know something about that, something others might not know because they haven't had the experience. I doubt that, really. Most people have suffered losses greater than mine, although mine haven't been inconsequential. Mine have been self-inflicted, which makes the matter a bit strained. I wonder how it would go if I talked about that: Spirituality and self-inflicted loss. How does one deal with God after shooting one's self in the foot?

Well, now, wouldn't that be, uh, different?

Self-inflicted loss is qualitatively different from losses such as the recent loss of one of my students in a motorcycle accident. I didn't know him well, but I can't imagine how his parents are coping with this worst of all possible things. One question is different: Parents of dead children don't ask themselves, "How could I have been so stupid?" Well, maybe. I've heard that my student's motorcycle habit had been fueled by his father's interest, that it was a significant bond in their lives. But there was no good reason why it had to end in the young man's death. His father certainly hadn't taught him to ride without a helmet.

It takes a measure of stupidity to shoot one's self in the foot. The image is wrong, though, because that kind of thing can be a painful accident. Self-inflicted loss would be more like taking careful aim at one's foot before pulling the trigger. More of a suicide gesture than an accident. (Of course, some suicide gestures accidentally end in actual suicide.)

Loss is loss, self-inflicted or otherwise, so dealing with grief is part of spiritual and psychological healing. (Takes both.) Self-inflicted loss also might include forgiveness, asking God's and accepting it, which means forgiving yourself; and then, perhaps, asking it of others, thereby taking the risk that it won't be forthcoming. I'm not too sure I have any answers for questions that come out of all this. What's it like to be forgiven? What's it like to forgive one's self? What's it like to live with the unforgiveness of others? What's it like to accept that level of love when it is offered? I guess I'd have to fall back on faith, because I'm not sure I can give much of an account of these issues from experience.

Maybe that's where the story-telling comes in. It won't make sense until I make it part of my story. I seem to have dramatized God's forgiveness in my first Labyrinth walk. I could not resist that sense of God's presence, that empowering love. I was ready, apparently, emotionally and spiritually exhausted by angry striving against the mess I'd made of my life and the emptiness that had formed around my walking away from my vocation in the church. Perhaps my behavior so fundamentally changed after that experience because I did forgive myself, or at least began doing so. Maybe I'm still doing it. Maybe I'll have to do it every day for the rest of my life. Maybe that's the thorn in my flesh that will keep me honest. Who knows?

The hard part -- conversion was easy, by comparison -- is making peace with those harmed by my misconduct: The mother of my children and our children. That's the part that hasn't become part of the story, and may never become part of the story; or, perhaps that part of the story is the continuing pain and ambiguity in our relationships. I seem to have ceased to exist for them, and for good reason. I have not been part of the fabric of their lives for more than two decades -- most of their lives. Uncle Dad. Oh, how I hated that when they were younger. And now? Distant Uncle Dad. I'm a grandfather, now, but not much of one. My oldest of three sons has never brought his family to visit in my home. Distant Uncle Grandfather? I might as well live on Mars.

One of my daughters told her classmates that I had died when I left my family and the priesthood in 1982. It was the only story she knew how to tell, because she didn't know how
else or why I would have left her. Did she think I no longer loved her? Probably, and I suspect she's not examined that bitterness to this day.

This isn't a topic I've discussed at length or depth with any of my children. Have they "moved on," in the idiom of popular culture? Apparently, and they seem to have no need of me. I don't know how to be their father. They don't know how to be my children. It's not a broken relationship. It's deader than a doornail, something
else in my life, and perhaps in theirs, that can not be revived.

That's a kind of loss that may be more common than I thought at first. When family members are alienated from each other there is a sense of loss accompanied by a variety of emotions. It's loss, though, no matter how you slice it, and I wonder what Christian spirituality has to say about that. I'd have to begin by hearing Christ's prayer that we all be made one in the same way that he and the Father are one. Is it possible to maintain a spiritual connection with loved ones from whom I am separated by circumstantces and emotional distance? How does praying for them -- for the relationship -- help? Does it? Or is it just wishful thinking? How do we know? Where does it lead? What would healing look like? Is it a form of peace making? Shouldn't my prayer lead to action? Do I have the courage? Where does that come from?

Does it make more sense to come out of my faith in these matters than out of my guts? Probably. Perhaps I can get a better handle on things in prayer and theological reflection than by trying to analyze myself and my children, who certainly are beyond any analysis I might contrive, because we haven't talked -- and probably won't ever talk -- about these things. So, it's not just a matter of making more sense. Faith may be the only path I have for getting some purchase on these issues. As for action, I'm still hanging back, afraid of reaching out for fear of rejection. It's as though I'm in the grip of an Augustinian "not yet."

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Shattered

An old friend, probably a dear one, now that things are becoming clear as we grow toward our 59th year, has simply shattered my academic concentration by reminding me of something I had forgotten. As it happens, I have been dealing with some new and old knowledge having to do with time and memory, Augustine's Confessions and the narrative quality of experience (Stephen Crites, by way of introduction, but that, too, was long ago). Now that she, my dear, old friend, has invaded my memory, I'm no good at all in the present, the mystery of which Augustine essays in Book X of Confessions.

I was once 18 and weepy during a showing of King of Kings, and as I wept, I gripped the hand of my old friend in those days when neither of us was old. Her memory of it seems to be clear. Pain does that, I guess. I've had a strong right hand most of my life because my father said I should. (Fortunately, I could.) For me, it's all in bits and pieces, conditioned by my dismay that such an awful film could move me so. Maybe that's why I repressed it. What's coming to mind as I sit here, though, is the image of Jesus' shadow passing over those in need of healing. Was it as he walked the Via Dolorosa? Or was that Ben Hur? Things are getting a little weird, right now, as I'm trying to dredge some truth out of the "vast interior space" (Augustine) that is my memory. Actually, I'm not so much looking for truth as for a few stray facts!

That film would have moved me in those days because I was at a turning point in life, and I went to college wanting to make some changes. Among other things, I wanted to become a Roman Catholic. I had returned to some sense of there being a God after some time, probably the usual juvenile stint, of finding comfort that there was none. I preferred the universe that way because I was learning to misbehave in all the usual ways that juveniles long for and for which they often pay a price. By my senior year in high school, though, I had seen something like the grace of God in the face of my girlfriend's parents, stolid Baptists who might have become my in-laws. That was before I left town for Sin City, grew my hair, got a tan and spent some time wondering whether I might be gay. Turns out I wasn't, but instead of becoming a Catholic, I became an Episcopalian, as many of my gay friends were.

Later: Well, much later. I began this at the beginning of November, now it's the end. Almost Thanksgiving. I felt as though I hadn't finished, stored the draft, and now I'm wondering just where all this was going. I've finished the Dunne project, thank God, and thanks be to God for having done it.

I had a best friend in college, it turns out, although I didn't know it at the time, didn't value it as such and haven't paid sufficient tribute to it through the rest of my life to this 58th year. He was the first man who told me he loved me in the way that gay men love other men. He was sexually attracted to me, but more, he loved the me I apparently didn't know then -- the one who wept during "King of Kings" -- but now I think it was that part of me that, today, comes out "spiritual." We were kindred spirits, and the unhappy part of that was that I wasn't homosexual. Had I been, we might have become life friends after the usual and usually tumultuous coming to terms with gay life. I'm sure I would have been as unfaithful to him as I was to my first wife. Given that, I might be dead by now, a victim of AIDS. Several of my gay friends from college died of AIDS, and my best friend long ago stopped counting how many friends he's lost. We're still friends though not especially close. We love each other. We say so, anyway, but his life is there and mine is here, and we get together for dinner from time to time to catch up. Life, though, is not what might have been. (I, after all, might have been a bishop.) It's about what has been, and that's hard enough for most of us to deal with. The truth is that I don't have any close friends, except my wife. I'm too selfish for real friendship, or maybe just too much of an introvert. Maybe both.

People who know me wouldn't agree, but I think my best friend would. He's known me 40 years, and for some of those years he tried to be a close friend. I always kept him at arm's length, which raises the suspicion that I feared my feelings for him and that I was, indeed, a closet homosexual. Four decades after the raising of that issue in my life, I have to say, with some authority, that I'm not, which is not to say that I am not attracted to some men for the same reason that my friend was attracted to that spiritual part of me. And, as I've known for many years, one of those men is Jesus, and it is in Christ that I can acknowledge that part of me that can love other men as spiritual friends. I have no such spiritual friends, it turns out, except for that now somewhat estranged college friend with whom I've had sporadic conversation from youth to age. I still have all his letters. I wonder whether he has the few that I wrote in return.

Now that's a bit of a roundabout, from "King of Kings" to a concept explored at some depth by Aelred of Rievaux, whose book "Spiritual Friendship" is lying on a table next to me as I write this, the reading of which will be my very next task. What's charming about all this is how it began with a high school friend and how it is that our lives have intersected to produce a kind of thoughtfulness that might not have come about had we not been as old as we are. There have been intersections with others, including a high school sweetheart who tracked me down to wish me a happy 50th birthday (a whole 'nother story), which led to a big chill weekend in Colorado several years ago with our little clique of former high school athletes.

That's about all the autobiography I can stand for now.

Adios.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Autobiography?

There are lots of ways to tell a story, lots of ways to tell yours or mine. Mine could be the story of a deposed priest, but I've had good advice lately from a dear and holy man that I should stop labeling myself that way. It could be the story of a journalist or, maybe, of just a guy looking to get laid and be happy. There's not much of that left in me, but once there was, which is typical, I suppose. Then there's the spiritual autobiography, my life story before God or in relationship with God. My life in the spirit? Or maybe it's the story I would tell to God about my life. What would that be like?

My wife and I were to have left town this afternoon for a weekend away -- no cell phones, no studying, no work. Just her and me out in the country somewhere in small-town Texas on some property owned by a friend and member of my little congregation. Well, work delayed our departure, so we decided to get up early in the morning, drive away from the sunrise, instead of into the blinding sunset, get some homestuff done tonight. Pizza, wine and a DVD. The only reason I'm mentioning all this is that I suspect that by the end of the weekend, our experience of this Friday night will have been reviewed and put in place, somehow, and that we won't recall what really happened. All we'll recall -- all that's worth recalling -- will be what was meaningful. We'll make a story of it. It's what we do. What kind of story? Depends on how it goes.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Life story?

I've been reading a lot of John S. Dunne lately, a kind of intellectual friendship continued that began in seminary 30 years ago. Spiritual friendship, too, I guess. His way with time and myth shaped how I pray in public and private. Pretty much the whole thing, it turns out. Dunne's hermeneutics became so much part of my theology that I'd forgotten just how much of an influence he was, until now.

I'm working on a doctoral project in Christian nurture, headed toward a dissertation project on providing spiritual direction to deposed clergy. This project is mostly research with a case-study component. Lots of reading, though not all of Dunne. Just the first seven books, but that's plenty.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the reading has provoked me to do something Dunne recommends in an early work, "A Search for God in Time and Memory," viz., write something of an autobiography, or at least the outlines of one, just to see what comes out of the woodwork. Now that I'm sitting here thinking about it I don't know where to begin. If I were to tell the story of my life, where would I begin and how would I tell it?

This venue shapes it somewhat. To some extent, the story of my life has been about my becoming a priest then being deposed, but that's certainly not all there is to it. I've also been a husband and father, though not much of one; a journalist, though not much of one; and, lately, a student newspaper adviser. (I'm not really cut out for that, either.) Perhaps the operative principle is "not much of one," regardless of what I've done in life. Dunne might say at this point, but it's not about what you've done but who you are. I'd have to say at that point, who the hell knows?

How would I want the story to be remembered by others? That's important, I guess. A story's no good without an audience. Who would that be? Good question. According to the path I'm on, according to my hopes for it, anyway, the story of my becoming a priest would be told to the church, and by that I mean the whole church, not just The Episcopal Church. I'd want the story to be remembered as one of vocation, shame, pain and redemption (if that's the way it turns out, and I'm not sure one can be sure in advance how that will be).

The story of my becoming a priest would eventually tell all of it, but I suspect that any of the stories I might tell would eventually come around to all of the stories -- husband and father, journalist, college teacher. So it probably doesn't matter where I begin, and I guess it's pretty clear that the story of my becoming a priest will be the how.

It may not matter where I begin, but now, how do I decide? The story of my becoming a priest may have begun -- probably began -- when I was a child, but it's most important aspects are much more recent, even contemporary. In a sense, as I sit here pondering where to begin, I am beginning by wondering where to begin. Isn't that where things always begin, here and now?

My first inkling that I might become an ordained minister began in my first year of college, 1965-66. I had been reared in the Methodist Church but something about that tradition left me cold. It turns out that I didn't know what I was missing until I attended high-church Holy Communion at an Episcopal Church near my college, and then high Mass at an Anglo-Catholic parish in the same city. I was enthralled by the liturgy and I knew all the words, because they were identical to those in the back of the Methodist hymnal. These Episcopalians, though, had vestments, incense, candles, bells, prayer books and chant. Beauty, not the austere colonialism of the Methodist tradition, but the extravagant dignity of liturgy made of things as well as prayers, of words made flesh. I felt as though I had arrived home, and it helped that college friends who had invited me to their Episcopal congregations were willing to see me through confirmation as well.

My friends were gay, and that matters, somehow, in all of this. They were among the most intelligent, pleasant men I'd ever known. I was 18 and had been reared in the usual way regarding homosexuals -- ignorant, biased and fearful. Nothing about this subject has ever been easy for me, beginning with that remarkable year during which I was confirmed on Ascension Day, 1966. The friend who had first taken me to the church where I was confirmed as a friend to this day, and we've had to work all that out, about his being gay and my not being gay and our being friends. It was a hilly, emotional path, full of pain, grief, fear, joy, health and, perhaps at last, wholeness. We are friends still, as others of my gay friends from college and I are not. Old men, really, he in his sixties and I approaching mine. I love him. We love each other.

I began this about three weeks ago and have since -- just today, actually -- read John S. Dunne's autobiography, which was illuminating for my project but also for the way it resonated with my life story. It probably resonates with many life stories, but I'm particularly engaged by how his love of writing and music played a role in his early life and then the music virtually disappeared. While it hasn't disappeared from my life, I did not pursue the gift for it that I clearly had from an early age. I've wondered lately whether to take it up in some formal way; and as it turns out, Dunne has done just that. The past 10 years of his life have been devoted to composition and lyrics. He's a theologian become a song and dance man.

It's been more than 10 years, now, since my last song and dance appearance, as Fagin in "Oliver!" That was before a conversion experience the following year that led to the work I'm now doing. I had not been in church for years, probably since about 1987, and I thought I had found my new community of meaning -- amateur theater. Fagin was the last role in my short stage career. I had begun as Mordcha in "Fiddler on the Roof" in 1993. Then came a forgettable role in a forgettable play by a local playwright, "The Plague's the Thing." Then a summer Shakespeare role as the fool in "Merchant of Venice." Then "Oliver!" I began working backstage to learn that part of the craft, first in the light booth then on the flys. But while I worked backstage for "My Fair Lady," the spring musical at the community theater, I had to leave the show because my job as a news writer went 24/7 in the wake of two sensational murders. My theater career, it turned out was over.

I had been attracted to theater by the prospect of doing something creative and something new. I had been in a play in 9th grade -- stole the show, I'm told -- but I'd never thought of theater as a path in life. After my first show, though, I wanted to do more and more and more. Performing was satisfying, but what makes theater a depth experience is starting from nothing and arriving at something in the company of others, some good, some bad, but all committed, each in her own way, to the project. It's a laboratory of human interaction, of friendships made and lost, of highs and lows, disappointment and desperation, exaltation and sheer joy. There's a life story in every show, a beginning from nothing that leads to a high point then ends with a death of sorts -- striking the set, and that always left me sad, eager to begin another show. And that was my life from the summer of 1993 through March 1995.

I worked for a newspaper, but in the features department, which left me, for one of the few times in my adult life, with evenings to use as I pleased. For those 20 months, I'd leave work early as possible, go home to rest, change and eat a snack, then I'd head for rehearsal, three hours a night, four nights a week. When the job changed late in 1994, I tried to keep the theater thing going, but when Selena Quintanilla-Perez was shot to death, I had to drop my backstage work, and I never went back. I was bitter about it, but there wasn't much I could do. I felt trapped in the newsroom.

I feel as though I've reached the end of a chapter. So be it.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The way

The way of all blogs, it seems, is for there to be a flurry of activity in the beginning then virtually nothing for a while, and then an apologetic return. No apologies. It's not that I've lost interest. I've been busy. Well, who hasn't? Point taken.

As time gathered around my last real entry -- musings on the lessons don't count -- I began to wonder whether I've said all I have to say. Well, no, but there comes a point when the "who cares" factor looms large. I carry my vocational issues to God almost every day, but who else would be interested in all that? Even in bloggerland, there must be a limit. (OK, I've seen worse and so have you, but who wants to be part of that?)

It's still my hope that some deposed priest will find these postings and be prompted to get in touch. I feel as though a long talk with a fellow deposed priest would benefit both of us. The blog's not easy to find, though. If I haven't told you it's here, you probably haven't found it.

Well, son of a gun. I've just tried Googling the site, and it works. It's been since May. I'd expected more visibility sooner. Maybe just maybe ...

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Light on the stand

The light on the stand in today's gospel lesson is not this little light of mine. It is the light of Christ revealing that which is hidden. Jesus hated hypocrisy. Again and again, the gospels tell of his preaching about those who know the law but don't do it, who strap burdens upon others they're not willing to take upon themselves, who are all whitewash on the outside but just a pile of stinking rot within. These are parables about the Kingdom, and Jesus is saying the Kingdom is like light on a lightstand that reveals what's in the dark corners of a room. It is the light of truth, and there's no place to hide.

The lesson continues. We are blessed by giving, and those who give most are most blessed. Those who refuse to give get nothing. (We're not talking about those who have nothing to give.) Giving participates in the providence of God, the love of God for creation. Giving is the way of holiness.
Jesus says refusing to give results in losing even what I have. As Dory might say, "Just keep giving, just keep giving."

Stewardship, then, is giving away what one has been given by God, whether that be material wealth, intellectual power or spiritual gifts. Holiness, the giving by which we participate in the love of Jesus, is to give without calling attention to ourselves, as the hypocrites do. It is to give without expecting something in return. Holy giving is simply to pour out what one has, what one is, so that those in the neighborhood who have not may be blessed by God. And it is God who should be thanked, not the giver.

God bestows upon ordained people a gift of service to the community of faith. The Holy Spirit empowers and the Holy Church authorizes this or that person to be sacramental in specific, though limited, ways. One is made worthy of that ministry only by the grace of God. God does not bestow position or rank but an interior disposition to give away what has been given, grace that comes by virtue of the sacraments, God's special presence in the world brought in the power of the Spirit through the Church. The stewardship of such a gift is no more or less than God in Christ requires for any other gift, but poor stewardship of one's ordination seems doubly offensive, blasphemous in a way that seems more onerous than, say, hoarding one's wealth.

What could be more hypocritical than a priest who is a poor steward of the gifts of the Spirit that come with ordination? What could be more blasphemous than to deny the truth bestowed by the laying on of hands, to live a lie instead?

Jesus hates hypocrisy but not hypocrites, and that's good news for those who have been poor stewards of the Church's ordination. Divine love -- real love -- is like that, because it forgives what's been done while embracing the repentant sinner. Forgiven sinners aren't necessarily out of the woods, but at least there's a light on the stand to show them the way home.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Weeds

Robert Capon once said something like, God created onions because God likes onions. Or was it garlic? Whatever. Today's propers made me wonder why God likes weeds.

They are the bane of our garden. My beloved announced today before sunrise that she had a date with some weeds, so as I got ready for church, she dressed for sweat. I was on my way to preach about weeds, she to deal with them.

To hear Matthew tell it, Jesus didn't care much for weeds. The early church certainly didn't, as it retained and interpreted today's parable about weeds sown by the evil one amid fruitful seed sewn by God. Jesus, however, wasn't hasty about weeds. Don't weed the garden, he said. You might do more harm than good by pulling up fruitful stalks, too. We'll burn the weeds after the harvest. They'll get theirs.

Meanwhile, though, they'll get ours, too, and that must have stuck in the craw of the Christian Righteous. Just as rain falls on the just and the unjust, so wheat and tares sown together will get what God has to offer to the community of faith, the church, also known as the Kingdom of God. (Yes, I believe that, even though we're far from it.) Blessings for all, even the weeds. The Christian Righteous, though, don't want it that way. Never have. The Christian Righetous want the church to be pure, untainted, unspoiled. No one need apply except those who believe and do the right things. The Christian Righteous want the church to be one, holy, catholic, apostolic and, above all, righteous. Verifiably righteous.

I have to say I have a lot of sympathy with the righteous urge to purge the church of its dead wood. Hold that bar high. Make it matter. If it doesn't, why bother? There's a lot of that in the teaching of Jesus. You lack one thing, he told the yuppie. Give away all your stuff to the poor, then take up your cross and follow me. You have to wonder, though, about how a deposed priest could come to agree with such an attitude. All talk and no walk, eh? Rigor without vigor. Hypocrite.

Well, who ever said hearing the word wasn't complicated? Weren't there pharisees who marveled at Jesus' mastery of the law and the prophets? So, why not contemporary hypocrites who say their prayers and marvel at the God who searches out and knows us better than we know ourselves?

Thing is, though, we Christian Righteous are wrong. Jesus teaches clearly in today's gospel lesson that we are to let tares grow among the wheat, and that whatever happens hereafter is in the hands of God and the holy angels. Here and now, it's not about weeding the church but loving one's neighbor. (Jesus was pretty clear about that, too.) And if we believe in miracles, it also means giving weeds the opportunity to let themselves be changed into wheat. With God, we're told (again, by Jesus) that all things are possible. Camels pass through the needle's eye. Weeds become wheat.

Jesus doesn't talk about transforming weeds into wheat, because that wasn't the point of the parable. But it's not uncommon for a parable's analogy to break down when one prays through it. And when the analogy breaks down, the Spirit blows where it will.

There are days when I feel empowered and fruitful, an instrument of God's peace in the world. There are days when I feel just plain weedy, unfruitful, taking up space, using up water. There are days when I am so unhappy about the state of the church that I want to pull all the weeds, myself included, and cast us into the fiery furnace. There are days when I am content to know that judgment is in the hands of God and that I am called only to let myself be loved by God in Christ Jesus and to seek to fulfill my vocation in whatever way God may provide.

My hope is that God will transform whatever weediness remains in my soul into fruitful wheat, and my fear is that I will lack the courage to let that happen and that I will be damned, here and now and forever. Still a work in progress, forever and to the end.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Vicar's alb

Mom's been visiting here for the past two weeks. Her 82nd birthday is tomorrow, Bastille Day. Lots of associations crowding in for attention, but she said something tonight that bears exploring. She's repairing an old alb of mine by sewing a button hole where there has been Velcro for the past 30 years. Now it's too worn to be of service.

My albs, three of them, were made by the altar guild mistress of the first parish I served after being ordained deacon. She said it was her ordination gift to me. She made my amices and cincture, too. I didn't know then how precious these vestments would become, but I was smitten with this older woman at the time. She was a tyrant in the sacristy. Typically, all lived in fear of displeasing her, but everyone regarded her as well with affection, the way we regard strict mothers and fathers, but only years after we've left the nest. Eyes would roll after -- I'll call her J -- laid down the law once again to someone about how important it was to wear cotton gloves when handling the brass. I might have known, but didn't, that the Episcopal Church is full of such well-intentioned women, and because it's about God and the church, they get away with it.

J was slender and severe, a bit pinched in the mouth. Her clothes were not fine but simple, her shoes sensible. There was an ascetic air about her. She cared deeply for the church, but I have no clue about her interior life. I suspect she prayed often but found it unseemly to bray about it very much. She was an old-fashioned high-church woman.

J had that curious way of fawning over clergy while holding them in contempt. Maybe that's not quite fair, but she gave no quarter to clergy who didn't know their liturgical stuff, at least according to her lights. She had learned her stuff from the founding rector of our church, and of course, that became the rule for all time and eternity. There was only one way to do business with God and to clean up afterward: Father First's way.

She fawned over me and insisted that the altar guild do likewise. They were to make sure that we priests dressed ourselves properly, arranging our amices and straightening our chasubles. Oh, so many years later, I knew a young priest, DA, who couldn't stand for altar guild women to do these things for him. I rather appreciated the care, but DA hated it. Anyway, J was pleased with my liturgical knowledge and style, and of course, I let her mess with my vestments as I put them on, because I had attended a seminary where dressing for Mass was considered an important aspect of priesthood. (It probably is, too, because shabbily vested priests distract the faithful from prayer.) In a sense, then, I was J's kind of priest. Then I heard that she loved to gossip about me, too. "I wish he wouldn't wear that cassock so much," she joked one day during a St. Cecilia's Guild meeting called for the purpose of sewing crosses on purificators and lavabo towels. "You can't see his legs."

"I hear he puts out in his office," someone said in reply. Well, that got back to me, and it was true, but I couldn't imagine who was telling the tale. I ignored the red flag, but shouldn't have. There are no secrets in a church, nor should there be. I might have learned then that how I lived my life was dangerous and wrong, but no one could believe that I was unfaithful to my wife. The rumor was squelched by my friends, although I'm sure that something of it continued, perhaps even after I left for another position. I honestly thought my behavior would improve upon moving away from the suburbs of a major metropolitan area. It did for awhile, but the change didn't take, which means it was no change at all.

I still have those albs J made for me, and I'm sure she's long gone by now. They're the only albs I've ever owned, and for years they were locked away in a storage box shoved under a bed. But I've lately begun wearing one when I pray, a pure white garment that reminds me that I've been washed by the waters of baptism and that I'm now a new creation before God, hoping for heaven. I wear the cincture, too, an emblem of chastity. And so vested, barefoot and wrapped in a shawl that covers my head, I say the Office and fear hell.

J once asked whether I preferred buttons or Velcro on my albs. I said it didn't matter, but it did. I prefer buttons. Always have. And tomorrow my mother will sew a button to the vicar's alb. Mine.

Sedaris

I began reading an essay by David Sedaris today while I was waiting for a ride to work at the auto service place. Do interesting things really happen to him? Does he meet interesting people all the time, or is he just making it up? Some of it, maybe, but not all. Life probably is just that rich in humor to those with the eye for it. I am not one of them.

I think I spent too much time, professionally, trying to be accurate and fair, which is not a hallmark of Sedaris' work. Too much journalism, not enough creativity, not enough honing of the eye and ear. What he does is difficult, and even though I'd argue that accuracy and fairness are hard, too, they're at least rooted in what actually happened. You do have to keep your imagination in check. Not Sedaris, thank God. Otherwise, we would not have had his account of being a department store Christmas elf in Manhattan. It doesn't have to be accurate and fair to be true, true to life, true to one's particular vision. And if I agree or am entertained by it, so much the better. If not, what difference does it make?

I'm trying to put myself into an ironic state of mind but to no avail. I met a man today with whom Sedaris would have had a field day, but all I can say is that he was an appliance salesman who moved to here while his son went to vet school, then stayed when his son graduated and moved away because, well, it's better than the big city.

He had worked for Sears during the heyday of metropolitan development, a phrase anyone who's ever lived in the Southwest will recognize as wishful thinking followed by the kind of visceral horror that comes with unanticipated consequences. God, had we only known that all those brown people would move here when we built those non-stop freeways from Mexico, we might not have built them. But then who would clean our houses, mow our lawns and dig our ditches? Not the trailer trash, because they've all moved to Louisana and Oklahoma.

The driver's name was Bill, and he said he didn't have to work hard as a Sears salesman, because people would just walk in and say they wanted to buy appliances for their new homes. Well, here they are. Sign here. We'll deliver them day after tomorrow. Nothing to it. This was the same guy who said again and again as he drove me to work then back to the dealership after my oil change that "we appreciate your business and we hope you'll give us a call the next time you need service." About the third time he said it, I began to wonder why he was driving the service van for a car dealership. I could only imagine what manner of ultimatum his wife had given him: Look, either cut it out about giving you a call the next time I need service or get a job. For God's sake, get the heck out of the house. You're driving me crazy.

OK, well, it's late and I'm just home from work. Time for bed.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Betrayal: Paul

Paul, to his continuing shame, probably until the day he was beheaded in Rome, persecuted Christians, Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah. He was a righteous man, a Pharisee. I wonder whether he ever prayed as one who thanked God that he was not as others, even that sinner over there. He was steeped in the religious traditions of his ancestors, by any measure a worthy member of the tribe of Benjamin, perhaps even a missionary or a proselytizer of God-fearing pagans who attended synagogues from Caesarea to Rome.

Paul was not content to be a practicing Jew. He was an advocate, a defender, who no doubt believed that only the Law of Moses stood between the civilized world and chaos. Judaism was going through a growth spurt. Jews who lived elsewhere outnumbered those in Palestine, and they were a far different crowd. Didn't speak Hebrew at all, only Greek. Paul was, perhaps, one of these, but he hewed to the teachings of the rabbis and the practices of a people set apart. These Jews who followed The Way, these messianists, were preaching blasphemy. The messiah, they said, had been crucified and had risen from the dead.

It was a dangerous lie. It was seditious as to the Romans and blasphemous as to the Jews. It could disrupt civil order and religious equilibrium. It had to be stamped out, and Paul was just the one to do it. Paul, the indefatigable religionist, obtained warrants to arrest those who preached that Jesus was the messiah, to make the accountable to religious authorities and, if necessary, to the Roman state, just as Jesus of Nazareth had been called to account for his proclamation of a kingdom other than imperial Rome.

He was on his way to Damascus when lightning struck near his horse. He was blinded. His ears rang. He heard the voice of God, of God in Christ Jesus: Saul, why are you persecuting me? Or so he would say later. I suspect it wasn't quite the just-so story we read in scripture. No matter, though. The result was the same, a change of heart. He who persecuted the church became its savior.

Whatever else may be said of Paul, this remains fundamental: He was loyal to a fault. He would not have blinked to lose his life for Judaism before he became an apostle of Christ. He did not blink to lose his life as a witness to Christ before the emperor. Though his shame was virtually impenetrable for having persecuted the church, he never once turned back from the path God laid for him on the road to Damascus. Betrayal was not Paul's problem, though he had many. He could not have been more loyal, first to Moses then to Jesus.

Paul heard the call of God clearly, and he was resolute in his determination to fulfill that call. He erred, even grievously, as when he stood by condoning the stoning of Stephen, which he may, in fact, have instigated. I find it ironic that he would wonder in Romans 6 whether we should sin boldly so that grace might abound. By no means! Well, perhaps Paul was most persuasive in this type of argument because he knew well the cost of sinning boldly. How could I have been so wrong, he might have asked. How could I have been so blind?

I've asked myself the same questions, though for far different reasons. The shame is there, too, for having failed to see the light, somehow. The similarities quickly dissolve, however, because Paul's shame was rooted in courageous loyalty, whereas mine was rooted in cowardly disloyalty. Paul betrayed Christ out of loyalty and zeal for Judaism, the right thing for the wrong reason. I betrayed Christ out of self-absorption and fear, the wrong thing for the wrong reason. In all honesty, Paul might have considered himself a betrayer, even though he wasn't. In all honesty, I have to say that though I wish I had not been a betrayer, I was.

More like Judas than Peter or Paul, but thank God, less inclined to hang myself. Paul, to his continuing shame, probably until the day he was beheaded in Rome, persecuted Christians, Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah. He was a righteous man, a Pharisee. I wonder whether he ever prayed as one who thanked God that he was not as others, even that sinner over there. He was steeped in the religious traditions of his ancestors, by any measure a worthy member of the tribe of Benjamin, perhaps even a missionary or a proselytizer of God-fearing pagans who attended synagogues from Caesarea to Rome.

Paul was not content to be a practicing Jew. He was an advocate, a defender, who no doubt believed that only the Law of Moses stood between the civilized world and chaos. Judaism was going through a growth spurt. Jews who lived elsewhere outnumbered those in Palestine, and they were a far different crowd. Didn't speak Hebrew at all, only Greek. Paul was, perhaps, one of these, but he hewed to the teachings of the rabbis and the practices of a people set apart. These Jews who followed The Way, these messianists, were preaching blasphemy. The messiah, they said, had been crucified and had risen from the dead.

It was a dangerous lie. It was seditious as to the Romans and blasphemous as to the Jews. It could disrupt civil order and religious equilibrium. It had to be stamped out, and Paul was just the one to do it. Paul, the indefatigable religionist, obtained warrants to arrest those who preached that Jesus was the messiah, to make the accountable to religious authorities and, if necessary, to the Roman state, just as Jesus of Nazareth had been called to account for his proclamation of a kingdom other than imperial Rome.

He was on his way to Damascus when lightning struck near his horse. He was blinded. His ears rang. He heard the voice of God, of God in Christ Jesus: Saul, why are you persecuting me? Or so he would say later. I suspect it wasn't quite the just-so story we read in scripture. No matter, though. The result was the same, a change of heart. He who persecuted the church became its savior.

Whatever else may be said of Paul, this remains fundamental: He was loyal to a fault. He would not have blinked to lose his life for Judaism before he became an apostle of Christ. He did not blink to lose his life as a witness to Christ before the emperor. Though his shame was virtually impenetrable for having persecuted the church, he never once turned back from the path God laid for him on the road to Damascus. Betrayal was not Paul's problem, though he had many. He could not have been more loyal, first to Moses then to Jesus.

Paul heard the call of God clearly, and he was resolute in his determination to fulfill that call. He erred, even grievously, as when he stood by condoning the stoning of Stephen, which he may, in fact, have instigated. I find it ironic that he would wonder in Romans 6 whether we should sin boldly so that grace might abound. By no means! Well, perhaps Paul was most persuasive in this type of argument because he knew well the cost of sinning boldly. How could I have been so wrong, he might have asked. How could I have been so blind?

I've asked myself the same questions, though for far different reasons. The shame is there, too, for having failed to see the light, somehow. The similarities quickly dissolve, however, because Paul's shame was rooted in courageous loyalty, whereas mine was rooted in cowardly disloyalty. Paul betrayed Christ out of loyalty and zeal for Judaism, the right thing for the wrong reason. I betrayed Christ out of self-absorption and fear, the wrong thing for the wrong reason. In all honesty, Paul might have considered himself a betrayer, even though he wasn't. In all honesty, I have to say that though I wish I had not been a betrayer, I was.

More like Judas than Peter or Paul, but thank God, less inclined to hang myself.

Betrayal: Peter

Poor Peter.

All sizzle, no steak. Passionate, but a lot of it was misplaced. Courageous. Kind of.

Peter's courage failed him again and again, so much so that he became a paradigm for those of us -- most of us? -- who don't measure up to the full stature of Christ. I suspect that the reason Peter became such a superfine apostle is that converts to the faith could see
so much of themselves in him. His flaws were important to the tradition of the church. His failures are my failures. Our failures. His overcoming them fuel our hope that we, too, might become, as he became, a martyr whose courage, ultimately, did not fail.

Peter sensed that he was in over his head, but I guess that's not uncommon. Maybe this, too, is a way that most of us are like Peter. How can we not be in over our heads in dealing with the mystery of the Incarnation? The mysterium tremendum attracts and repels us. Our instincts tell us to flee. Our hearts and minds compel us to stay. The terrible beauty of God in Christ brings out the worst and the best in us, and these contend, often in public ways. It partakes of Jesus' struggle with Satan in the wilderness, Jesus' own struggle with his vocation, from which he certainly and understandably might have fled. When we put on Christ, we put on the risen Lord but also the humanity of Jesus, and our prayer -- Peter's, mine, yours, ours -- is that in our flesh and spirit we might be made perfect, that our courage might not fail, that we let the Lord wash us head to toe and make us brighter than a fuller's art. Transfigured.

Or not.

Peter's hope lay in repentence. Judas' hope died in despair. Both betrayed Jesus for lack of courage. Peter wept. Judas hanged himself. Peter was transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. He continued to lumber through life. Some things never change, but my sense from scripture is that his courage never failed him again. He had betrayed Jesus by denying he knew him. After Pentecost, Peter no longer was capable of such a lie.

Peter's denial and Judas' treachery were two forms of betrayal, the core of which is the blasphemy of perceiving the truth and calling it a lie, the sin Jesus said was unforgiveable. We must believe that it is unforgiveable only as long as we persist in it; otherwise, who can be saved? Who has not blasphemed against the Holy Spirit? Certainly Peter did when he denied that he knew Jesus. Surely Judas did when he turned him over to the Temple authorities. Jesus was full of grace and truth, and yet these frail men, so attracted by the flame, lost their nerve and lived the lie.

The tradition doesn't cut Judas much slack, but Peter's blasphemy is embraced and even celebrated, again and again during Holy Week, because his blasphemy is ours, too. Peter's denial partakes of a core issue in Christian spirituality: How am I called to witness, and when I am called, will I? Peter sinned by letting the world dictate the terms of his existence. He was called but chose not to align himself with Jesus. Peter had been with Jesus from the beginning, a witness to Jesus' baptism and all that he did to proclaim the kingdom of God. Peter was one of the Twelve, ordained to proclaim the kingdom, heal the sick and cast out demons. He was the rock, upon whose faith Jesus would build his church. Peter had seen the miracles. He had walked on water. He denied it all for fear that he, too, would die. The miracles weren't enough for either Judas or Peter. Only the presence of the risen Lord and the empowering Holy Spirit could change them. Judas died in despair before his blasphemy could be redeemed. Peter did not.

The fundamental issue for Christian faith is whether we have the courage to let God redeem us from our inevitable failure. All have sinned and gone astray, followed our own way. More particularly, we have betrayed God in Christ Jesus, blasphemed by seeing the truth but living as though it were a lie, or at least as though it didn't matter. Few are as treacherous as Judas. Most are deniers. It's made all the worse, as scripture teaches, because of our familiarity with God in Christ. Ignorance is an excuse, but knowledge condemns us when we betray God, by making promises we don't keep, by not living the life we have promised to live, by not giving up all for the pearl of great price, by not taking up our cross. There is no excuse for those who know God in Christ but act as though they didn't. Only repentence. Only grace. Only love, which is the greatest thing of all.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Betrayal: Judas

I've had some good advice lately from a friend -- an old friend, recently recovered -- who saw in my anniversary account the reflections of a repentent good guy. Maybe so, but I've found that the story never changes, even though our appreciation of it may. Recent Morning Prayer readings prompted some reflection on the nature of betrayal, but I've been kept from writing very much about it. So, herewith, some musings.

It all began with, "Am I Judas or am I Peter?"

I've been preoccupied lately with what it means, in John S. Dunne's terms,
to "pass over" to the standpoint of another in order to have my own subjectivity enriched. It's become a regular spiritual exercise in my practice of prayer as a kind of Ignatian meditation tinged more than somewhat with Dunne's postmodern sensibility. Reading scripture, anymore, always seems to be an invitation to pass over to the standpoint of, say, Judas or Peter, both of whom were at the Last Supper, and both of whom betrayed the Lord; Judas by turning him over by stealth to those who would have him dead, and Peter by pretending that he didn't know Jesus in order to save his own skin. Perhaps what they had in common was fear.

I've always been intrigued by Nikos Kazantzakis' speculation that Judas betrayed Jesus because the would-be messiah didn't live up to the zealot's expectation that the Kingdom of God was about revolution against the Romans. By Kazanzakis' account, Judas despised Jesus' compassionate ministry. He murdered Lazarus, for example, because that strange wraith of a resurrected man stood against Judas' insistence that the messiah be a rebel like himself, a victorious rebel king. I guess that's a warning against all of us who would make Jesus over into our own image, and I'm sure I've done that over the years. I hope not to be doing it as much these days. It's supposed to go the other way, isn't it? It's not about Jesus looking like me but my becoming more and more like him.

It has been argued that Judas' betrayal of Jesus was a misguided attempt to force Jesus' hand. Surely, he would reveal his power, his legions of angels, his prowess on the battlefield (if nothing else), if he were arrested by the cheesy religious establishment of Jerusalem and then turned over to the Romans. Judas no doubt would have been among the first to lift a sword against Rome for the messiah, probably willing to die for the messiah, as Peter and the rest of the disciples were clearly not ready to do before the resurrection. In a way, Judas was ready to take up his cross for the messiah he wanted Jesus to be. He believed there would be no kingdom other than Rome, and certainly not one of God, unless religious zealots like himself -- like Osama bin Laden? -- were willing to take on the superpower and die in the streets. (Ultimately, of course, thousands did, but by then, Judas was long gone. The betrayer was betrayed by history. He jumped the gun. He bet on Jesus.

Judas betrayed Jesus by making him a pawn -- imagine that! -- in a politico-religious struggle against an empire. If you're not going to be my kind of savior, then die, Nazarean! Judas wanted revolution, but perhaps he also wanted justice and peace, though without Roman procurators and puppets in the drivers' seats. He saw Jesus as a means to an end. Kant says that's no way, morally, to perceive another human being, which always should be regarded as an end in herself.

Judas made a commitment to follow Jesus. He wasn't included as one of the Twelve for lack of devotion, for lack of love. These were Jesus closest and dearest friends, despite Kazantkakis' argument that Judas insinuated himself into the inner circle by dint of his overbearing personality and apparent gift for keeping the purse. Jesus had no foreknowledge of Judas' betrayal, at least I don't believe he did. He suspected that betrayal was likely (it always is), but I do believe he loved Judas as he loved Peter. Jesus probably was exasperated by Judas' zealous politics, but Iscariot would not have been among the Twelve if Jesus hadn't loved him -- and he Jesus, which makes betrayal all the more painful and Judas all the more pathetic.

Hold that thought. More later.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Anniversary

All of us have The Anniversary.

It was the day we lost it, the day we were caught, the day all that had been hidden became known, the day all hell broke loose. Truly a pivotal day, a day from which all subsequent days have taken at least part of their meaning, because life changed so dramatically that day. It's a day that ranks up there just below wedding day and death days of family and friends. Truly, although it sounds a little weird to say so. It's a day we wish had never happened -- but then, where would the rest of life as I have known it been. The second chance. The loving transformation. Hope.

What would life be without ironic twists?

June is always a weird month for me because of that particular anniversary. It also happens to be the commemoration of St. Alban -- and the anniversary of my ordination to the deaconate, at least I think so. The tapes that play are not those of my ordination but of those horrifying moments of being caught with a woman not my wife, not in flagrante
delicto but sure enough kissing passionately. His face, her hubsand. Her face. Then what? It's all a blur, really, a crystalline impression of life moving way too fast for this small mind. Something was definitely over and something else beginning. I would never again be friends with her husband. (We had been.) And, as it turned out, she would cease to be much of a friend within a year. I wonder how often that's the case.

Then began the slo-mo, the leaden trudge through that horrible conversation with the bishop, wherein he wondered out loud whether my wife was frigid. I wanted to paste him on the spot. To this day, I don't know why I didn't. I walked out of that meeting inhibited and enroute to filing for divorce. Moved out. Moved home. Priest on the lam. Still gives me the creeps to think about it.

Out of work. Hmmm. Now, there's a concept. What's an inhibited priest good for? Not much. Substitute teaching. Leasing cars. Posting clerk for my father, an accountant. Went to school to learn that craft and take the test, but kept wondering whether I might move away to be nearer She With Whom I Wrecked My Life. No dice and just as well. It fizzled, both of us left holding the empty bags of our broken marriages, she with two sons and I with three sons and two daughters in absentia. I'd visit five hours away on some weekends, then kiss good-bye. "Mom, why is daddy crying?" That went on for months.

Go to church? Sure, why not? Well, for one thing, it feels strange. All I do is sit in the corner, near the back and choke back tears. People wonder. You don't know what to say or whether to say you're a "former priest." "Former?" they ask. "The usual reason," you say, smiling, trying to keep it light. They walk away. You feel undressed. Ashamed. Humiliated. You deserve it. Not your wife, though. Not your kids, one of whom has told her second-grade classmates that you've died.

Psychotherapy? Sure, except I'm unemployed and uninsured. You don't get much of that for free. Spiritual direction? Yes, thank God. Probably kept me from pulling the trigger in an Act of Ultimate Selfishness. Still, suicide does take some kind of guts, but I certainly had none. One of the counselors I did meet with a couple of times on someone else's nickel (my bishop's) ventured to say that our marriage seemed to have died for lack of courage, mine and hers. Mine for sure. My wife, though, turned out to have quite a lot in rearing five children alone. If there are any heroes in all of this, it's them.

You don't "get over it." You haven't walked away unscathed. You never forget The Anniversary, and probably just as well. It helps you keep your bearings in an odd though relentless way. "God give me the serenity to remember who I am," or so the song says. These aren't serene memories, but thank God they are distant. They are not "just memories," though. They are the way things were brought forward day by day, month by month, year by year, because nothing of the way things are is untouched by them. Best to make them allies, if not friends, for the keeping of perspective and for the keeping of new but similar promises that you were not able or willing to keep back then.

Been to hell, thank you. Don't want to go back.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Shadow self


Today's preacher reminded us to make friends with our shadow selves, that Jungian construct, the dark side that shall not overcome the light -- but damn well may bite you in the ass. Hard.

I guess I'd heard of my shadow self before I so radically misbehaved there was no longer any room for me in the ordained ministry of the church, but I clearly didn't pay enough attention. I guess it's that part of me that has dark thoughts, the thorn in my flesh that keeps me not from being who I am but from doing what ought to be done. It wants to be known as me, and I guess that if shadow boy ever actually took over there would be, as Sartre says, nothing left to talk about except whether to commit suicide.

There were moments of that back then.

I once dreamed that the husband of the woman with whom I had an affair came to church with a gun in his pocket, but the dream ended before I heard the shot. The church was a large, white house on a broadly sloping, grassy hill with porches all around. Families were on the hill. It was like a picnic. I strolled around in my black cassock. (Shadow boy?) Then I saw him. I greeted him warmly, wishing and hoping in my dream that the bad things hadn't happened. They had. Out came the gun. I awoke in a sweat.

My spiritual director walked me through some scenarios for how the dream might have ended had I not awakened. Struggle for the gun, then in one scenarior, I disarm him; in another, I get blown away. In another, I merely stand there and let him shoot. In another, I stand and he doesn't shoot, but walks away. I am so frightened by this dream that I can't imagine fighting. The most likely scenario is passively letting him blow me away. It's almost a relief. More of a relief, though, is asking him to forgive me. I'm weeping. The real pain in all of this is that of being unforgiven, of knowing such a level of hatred that it brings despair, a taste of the sickness unto death. Better to die than be in its grip. Forgiveness, though, is worth praying for, hoping for, living for. Better to live than to die. Somehow, I got to that. I'm still here more than 20 years later.

Shadow boy, though, left some serious scars on my ass.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Christ's faith


Didn't have near enough Greek in seminary, but today's preacher said something about how the genitive case is usually mistranslated from Greek to English in most versions of the New Testament. Among other things, it shifts soteriology significantly to hear that it's not my faith in Christ but his faith in me that saves me.

His faith in me. Was it the father's faith that brought the son back years after squandering his inheritance? Did the son come to himself through some operation of the father's faith? In coming to himself, did he realize only that he was cold and hungry or that his father was the type of man who wouldn't let his servants go hungry? Had the father made a lasting impression, even though the son was blind to it and wanted only from his father what he could give? At what point does one cross over from that kind of ignorance to knowledge of the love of God in Christ? Or is it less certain than that? The son went home to be a servant, but his father received him as a son. No inheritance, but still a son, fatted calf and all.

More questions than answers, and I have more studying to do.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Graduation


My 34-year-old daughter graduated from college today, bless her. We gathered in a convention center with several thousand others to celebrate the achievements of those who took more than the conventional 4-5 years.

Our day began driving 45 miles to church, then 3 1/2 hours to graduation. Then back. Sounds arduous, but my wife and I agreed that we were in good company the whole day -- our small-town congregation, each other, children and grandchildren who live in the large cities to the north. A long day made short by the quality of our relationships. How time flies when you're having a good time.

On our way to graduation, the mix of memories led me to recall someone -- a family, actually -- I hadn't recalled for years, maybe decades. The monk and the recent convert, brothers, and their mother, dying of cancer when her son the monk called the church where I worked and asked that a priest come to the hospital. She died, but not before the brothers nearly came to blows over whether we should pray for healing or a good death. Why not both? That's not faith, said the convert. We'll get what we want if we believe we're going to get it. That's not faith, said the monk. Jesus himself prayed to be delivered from his passion but submitted to the will of the Father.

Then came I, the freshly minted priest.

Seminary sensitizes those to be ordained to a variety of theological and pastoral issues, making them think about what they believe, and then turning it inside out to invite them to believe what they think. You make choices in seminary, such as whether to believe in order to understand or to understand in order to believe. Seminary is relatively short, just shy of three years. One scarcely has time to digest all the matter presented in the classroom, let alone all that is dredged up in the chapel. It's no solution to make the process last five years or even 10. I suspect one comes out of this type of formation half-baked, no matter how long it takes. Only pastoral experience completes the process -- but under what circumstances?

I was fortunate, because I was a problem child from the beginning. A suffragan bishop of our diocese took me on for six months after I was ordained deacon. He was my spiritual director, and he skillfully examined my pastoral sense, not after the manner of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), but in non-sentimental conversations about spirituality: What I did, not how I felt. He put me in touch with the ontology of ordained ministry in a way that had not become clear to me in seminary. It's his teaching that I now hark back to as I examine my vocation as a deposed clergyman. Had I fully explored his intimations in those early months of my ordained ministry, I might not have run off the rails as I did just six years later.

My mentor bishop questioned me at length about my pastoral conduct in the case of the monk, the convert and their mother dying of cancer. Whose side did I take? (Neither.) How did I resolve the dispute. (I didn't.) How did I respond as a pastor to the death of the mother? (I went to the funeral home service. I felt resigned and melancholy at what I considered a pastoral failure.) How did I pray about the monk, the convert and their mother? I didn't know. I hadn't really, and that's what really bothered me at the end. I hadn't prayed the matter, only "dealt" with it. Would things have been different had I "prayed better." I don't know, and it's probably irrelevant. As my favorite seminary professor once said (maybe quoting someone else, which was his wont): "Things are the way they are and not another way." God's will be done. Things "might have been different," but not much. It's all in how you look at it; again, quoting the prof, religion is a perspectival activity. If so, the ministry is bringing a healthy perspective to life -- and death. How would lives have been had I been more attuned spiritually to the case of the monk, the convert and their mother? I don't know, and neither did my mentor bishop. He suggested, however, by the question more than anything else, that the quality of life would have been different, even though the invevitable chronology would have been the same. Mom would have died in either case.

My mentor bishop died years ago, and I was nowhere near enough to attend his funeral or even to know that he had died. He had baptized one of my sons, and God knows he had loved me at a crucial moment in my life. At this moment, I have to say I'm missing him a lot. What would he say of this obverse way I have begun, finally, to understand and appreciate what he wanted me to know about the priesthood, that it is, first of all, a life of prayer and instrumentality, of losing one's life in order to save it? It all seems so obvious now, so painfully and wonderfully obvious, now that I am no longer worthy to be called his son.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Old self


Where does the old self go when one has been changed from one type of person to another? Not away but banished to a limbo in the mind, becoming something subconscious that breaks out only in dreams. It's probably not that simple, though, because I am consciously aware of how I once behaved and what I once was because of it -- a hypocrite, for starters, a sexual exploiter -- but my behavior has changed. I'm not that kind of person anymore, because I don't do those things. I don't sleep with women other than my wife.

That old self, though, is still in there, and it's disheartening when he appears in dreams. My old self, acting out. Same old feelings. Same old irresponsible me. Knew in the dream that what I was doing was wrong. Did it anyway. Was admonished by the woman I was with that it'd be better if we didn't. Did it anyway. Libido in overdrive. Awakened, frightened but also relieved that it was but a dream. Ironically, the same old feelings surged -- shame, guilt, fear of being caught, resolving not to do it again. It's like time travel.

Twenty-two years ago this month it happened. I was caught. The details are dreary and trite. The outcome predictable and tiresome. Domestic upheaval in two households. Upheaval in two churches. True scandal, a stumbling block for many who knew me and her. Anger. Disappointment. Major financial disruption. Priest on the lam.

I was offered a deal, though. Leave the diocese. Patch up the marriage. Get on with your life and career in the church. The marriage was dead, however, and I think my wife and I knew it. For the first time in 14 years of marriage, I heard her say she wanted marital counseling. Sounded like desperation to me. I didn't believe her. Maybe I should have. Maybe I should have taken the deal, but my guess is that I would have acted out again. I was sicker than anyone thought, sicker than I thought. Patching up the marriage wasn't going to get me out of hole I had dug for myself. I was deluded enough to believe the woman with whom I was having an affair would become my wife and that we would be happy together. Pipe dream. Dumb, really, but that's how out of touch I was in June 1982.

A seminary professor once told us that to have lost one's memory is to have lost one's mind. There's more than one way to interpret that. Among other things, it's a moral standpoint. If an unexamined life is not worth living -- and it's not -- then one's memory must be operative, and not only operative but conscientiously formed. If I were to lose my memory of those things which I ought not to have done, then wouldn't I simply repeat the mistakes of history? Probably. If dreams are more than simply the mind's off-loading of transient energy, if they are of God, then perhaps an early-morning dream of one's old self is a dynamic reminder of what ought not to be -- of what one ought never to have been. There's truth in it, frightening truth. It's one of the ways I've learned to fear hell.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Holiness


Pondering Columba and Anthony.

Something pure and good about Columba. Said to have died with a smile on his face after 30 years of running the monastery he founded at Iona. Diligent missionary. Righteous man. Holy.

Something strange about Anthony. Came in from the cold -- well, the desert, which is hot and cold, probably the way hell is, or at least our idea of it -- then went back. Probably wanted to die in that place where he felt closest to God. He was 18 years of age -- eighteen! -- when he divested himself of all he owned, which was considerable, and went into the wilderness with nothing. Alone.

It's hard to imagine passing over to the subjective standpoint of either man, although part of me yearns to do so. Both severed themselves from lives they knew, and that frightens me. The part of me that yearns is the part that wants to know that species of holiness, that sense of set-apartness, that sense of the presence of God in every act, so pervasive it becomes ordinary, so ordinary it requires no sense of purpose. It's just the way one is. Real. Really real.

It's probably possible for anyone to take on holiness, to become holy, whether it's here or there, far away or near. It seems that only a few actually take the steps -- and I would think there's no guarantee that holiness will be the outcome. Indeed, it's probably more likely than not that holiness is elusive for most, even among those who step off in that direction.

Priests are called to a kind of holiness, though not the same sort as that of the hermit or the monk. Priests are made holy in a certain way by ordination, whereas the sanctity of hermits and monks is rooted far more existentially. Ordination sets one aside for specific purposes, like a loaf of bread set aside for the Eucharistic table. Hermits and monks set themselves aside, so to speak, by betaking themselves elsewhere than the usual patterns and modes of life for the special purposes of prayer and rule. Christian priesthood partakes of a kind of domestic holiness, that of the kitchen and the cupboard. Monastic vocations partake of something more adventuresome, more that of the moor or the mountain.

People may fail at both types of holiness. Many do. Few do not, although I'm sure there are more who do than meet the eye. True saints are more likely than not to be silent. Truth be known, too, most saints are not priests or monks or hermits but Christians made holy by baptism, the fundamental form of Christian holiness; Christians who live into their vows with intensity and courage, seeking the Lord where he wills to be found and calling upon him when he draws near. Of course, not all Christians are saints. Probably most are not, but that's not because it's beyond reach. It's because we let the world tell us it's beyond comprehension.

That's the kind of world Anthony lived in, and he felt as though he had to do something radical in order to make a break from that incomprehensibility of holiness. The teachings of Jesus were clear, at least to Anthony. The understanding of the world was not, so Anthony moved out beyond the reach of cultural psychic clutter to let himself be enflamed by the love of God in the least cluttered place on earth. He heard the word to the rich young man, but didn't turn away; instead, he took up his cross. He remained true to his vows. He fulfilled his vocation.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Stewards of the lapsed

The problem this week seems to be that those daily office lessons keep pointing their fingers at me. Those three slaves and their doings with the master's money. That one always rubs me raw. I'm always the guy who buried the talent, or whatever, but that's by default. I'm neither of the others, because it doesn't seem to be in me to double the master's dough. So, I must be the burying kind. I can rationalize all I want, but come the ending, there I am standing before the master with little to show for having been trusted.

I think and pray about it in terms of how I seem to have squandered my natural talents, as well as how I've squandered my religious vocation. I feel as though I'm always playing a come-from-behind game, wondering what might have been. Achievement. Success. Satisfaction. Whatever, but those are personal issues. I do have a beef with the church about how it handles deposed clergy.

Even a deposed priest, a prodigal priest, is a redeemable asset for the church, but deposition seems also to mean burial. There's nothing formal about it, but once you're no longer permitted to practiced your vocation, you're on your own, and it's not pretty. (This is where I'd like to be set straight by others who have been deposed.)

No one has said a cross word to me since I was deposed, and to be honest, I wasn't an easy person to deal with. That's the good news. The bad news is that there was really no place to turn to try to understand my place in the church. Even I was not aware of what I needed, although I managed to stumble into spiritual direction with a fine priest. Psychotherapy helped me readjust to being divorced and financially hamstrung by child-support payments.

So, at the parish level, the church was responsive, but there was no dealing successfully with my diocese, which was painful for my bishop, for me and my family and my friends in that diocese. (I had left the diocese to live elsewhere.) My anger became a seething cauldron of resentment that I began carrying around with me all the time. Ultimately, about five years after I was inhibited, I renounced holy orders and ceased to practice my faith at all. It would be eight years before a significant death brought me back to church. Now, I hope my stewardship has improved, but the church's stewardship of priests who have broken their vows is still, apparently, less than stellar. (Again, I hope there's someone out there who can disabuse me of this impression.)

What should have happened? The church, as an institution, should have opened the door to a safe place where everyone could talk about their pain without fear. The church should keep that door open, not promising restoration or any such thing, but help in finding a vocational path that will keep a deposed priest's gifts in play. Just because a priest has squandered fulfilling a call to holy orders doesn't mean the church should squander its investment -- spiritual and financial -- in a woman or man to whose priestly vocation it once said "Amen." The church should provide psychotherapy to deposed priests who need it -- and most do -- but also spiritual direction specifically aimed at vocational discernment in the spirit of hope and healing. I doubt this happens very often in The Episcopal Church, if it happens at all.

The problem, of course, is that everybody's too damn mad at the breaking point. The message to deposed priests is, "Just go away and let us deal with the damage you've caused." Make no mistake, too, that deposed clergy usually leave plenty of wreckage in their wake. It's no wonder that bishops and standing committees are angry at unfaithful priests. Then there's the bitterness and resentment of the congregation and the priest's family. No one, but no one, comes away unmarked. I'm not making a case for sweeping any of it under the rug or letting bygones be bygones. I would argue, however, that the church still has a stake in the vocation of deposed clergy, and that it's poor stewardship to bury those talents without another look.

If God has a mean streak, it's with people who squander their gifts, or so says today's gospel lesson (Luke 19:11-27). "I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." Talk about a kick in the gut. To those who repent, though, the father comes running. The prodigal son has nothing but the love of the father -- and that's probably enough. Everything has been taken away because the son was stupid, but nothing takes away the father's love.

Deposed priests need to hear that and probably don't, at least not for a long, sad time. It's not something that springs to bishops' lips when things have come to an ugly pass. At that point, it's more about punishment and trying to take care of the victims. My prayer, though, for bishops and their deposed clergy, is that all eventually hear the words of the father who said, "... this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Dishwashing

One of those transient oddities: Whenever I wipe the stainless steel sinks at home, I recall those days at seminary when I was on the kitchen crew. Some seminarians hated that duty, but I don't recall disliking it at all. Something about cleaning up a kitchen that's spiritually satisfying. Always thought so, any way, at least since those days in the 1970s.

I'm sure I've idealized a lot about those years that I now consider golden. There were some pretty stressful times, but I look back and see nothing but the good things. The routine of chapel, class and study. The blending of these into a seamless whole. Earnest conversations with those who would be earnest. (You can't be earnest with everybody.) Long walks with the best of your friends. Fall days were the best, by far. The most holy, the most memorable. Holy Week in the chapel were always the richest, most exhausting days of the year.

All of it comes back when I've got soapy water on a wash rag, wiping the stainless steel sinks in our kitchen. I entered seminary almost 30 years ago. I'm finding it surpassing odd that this most ordinary of things brings it all back, almost daily, as I clean up the kitchen.

I'm not complaining. I cherish the memories, but they do make me ache, not because I'm so much older but because I know the rest of the story that won't go away, no matter how much I wish it would. At this time of day, though, those memories are harmless enough, because I can just drift off into sleep, perchance to dream.

Treed

Before today, Zaccheus was someone I knew about more than I knew or cared about personally. Stumpy little tax collector. Rich as Croesus. Acknowledged crook. Found himself up a tree for a glimpse of Jesus. Was lost, then found.

Sometimes, scripture reads me, the story just leaps off the page and wraps itself all over me. Or I fall into it, or something, like plunging into a well. Or maybe I go running into it across a sandy beach, diving into the breakers. You read the Bible every day, again and again the same old stuff, then one day a story you've read a hundred times just becomes the word made flesh before your eyes. You're not seeing it in your mind's eye anymore. You're in it. The story hasn't changed. You have. Something led you to this level of recognition. Something in you has been formed to receive the story at a deeper level or at least another level.

Familiarity is essential to the process. "The same old stuff" is the inspired word of God, always, and there's truth in it, always, but I'm not always ready or willing to hear it. (Not everything in the Bible is true, by the way, at least not now. Homosexuality, for example, may have been an abomination to Moses and his tribe 2,500 years ago, but it's obscene to use that legislation today as though God would create people in order to hate them and to justify their second-class citizenship in the church. But that's another discussion.)

Zaccheus was corrupt and dishonest, greedy -- and curious about what he must have kept hearing about this itinerent rabbi from Nazareth, the one who talked about loving one's enemies and who had a reputation for hanging out with the unclean. People like Zaccheus, rich and infamous, a builder of bigger barns and probably unhappy in his heart of hearts, even though he had every material reason to be content. Maybe he was rich because he was not only dishonest but intelligent, smart in the ways of the world, as Jesus would say, "wise as a serpent." Certainly not innocent as a dove, though. That was the part Zaccheus lacked. He'd lost his innocence, that true childlikeness Jesus encouraged among those he taught. He might have gotten rich by honest means, accumulated legitimate wealth, but it seems he had succumbed to greed and wasn't scrupulous about acquiring illegitimate wealth, too.

Zaccheus had gifts, but he had squandered them. He was successful but hellbound. Then he came to himself, like the prodigal son. He climbed into a tree to see Jesus. Love poured out of Jesus of Nazareth like marriage-feast wine. Zack, he said, I'm coming to your house for dinner. You know the rest of the story. Repentance. Good works. The lost had been found, and now there was work to be done, making up for lost time, for a lifetime of self-absorption and callous disregard for others. God's kingdom had come to that house. God's will was done. Zaccheus was no longer hellbound.

Jesus told his critics, again, that he had come for the lost, not the found. He had come for the blind, the lame, the dead, the prodigal, and there was no valley too steep or deep, no plain too broad, no mountain too high that he would not go there in search of lost sheep. The good news was that the kingdom had come for those who turned away from deadly paths toward the God of life. No path too deadly. If you're on one, those footsteps you hear behind you are those of the shepherd.

If it helps, climb a tree, then head for home to have dinner with Jesus.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Life after deposition

There is life after deposition, a phrase that came from the bishop who has authority over my case. In one of the more rewarding conversations of my life, he counseled me 3 1/2 years ago to put the burden down. We prayed, and he encouraged my exploring a ministry of spiritual direction to deposed clergy. If nothing else, he said, you can let them know that there is life after deposition. I hadn't asked him then to be restored to holy orders. Wasn't an issue. I did ask three years later, though, and he declined.

I don't know why, really, but it has had a clarifying effect. There is life after deposition, and I'm living it. I'm living in a diocese other than that from which I was deposed, and I have received a lot of encouragement in pursuing lay ministry. I've focused on spiritual direction and teaching, and I've found that there are paths for fulfilling one's call to service in the church, even though sacramental ministries are no longer an option. In fact, there's plenty to do as a well-trained layman, despite that yearning for restoration I suspect most deposed clergy feel in their bones. It's hope mingled with melancholy and, let's face it, self-pity. The phrase, "If only ..." often
finds its way into your vocabulary. As in, "If only I had not had that affair." If only I had been a better person, not so fatally flawed.

Life after deposition is not carefree, but then whose life is? Just because there's this huge regret lurking in the shadows doesn't mean you can't been effective, productive and sometimes even happy. What the hell is happiness anyway? I'm happiest when I'm most in touch with myself, my loved ones and that part of the world I inhabit. "Most in touch" means most in touch with all of it, the joy, sorrow, pain, regret and hope, bundled by faith and love. I was kind of bouncy a
fter church yesterday, and someone told me I was too happy. "Too happy?" I asked. "How can you be too happy?"

As I drove home, I marveled at that exchange; first, that someone had suggested that I, of all people, was too happy; second, that I responded without hesitation in words that could not have found their way to my lips, say, 12 years ago. It was a natural, true thing to say, but I had said it. And I believed it. And I believe it now.

Unbelievable.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Ontological pain

It's more than an itch you can't scratch, although it's akin to that nagging kind of vocation to ministry that won't let people go until they finally give in and seek postulancy. I've heard that story from men and women who figuratively fled from their sense of vocation to ordained ministry because -- pick one:
  1. Didn't want to uproot my family.
  2. Didn't want to give up my job.
  3. Didn't want to take on the challenges of seminary academics.
  4. Couldn't believe God wanted me in the priesthood.
And dozens more, I guess. The dark side of that itch you can't scratch (until you, in bumper-sticker theology terms, "let go and let God") is how it feels when one has been deposed from ordained ministry. The vocation doesn't go away. It's not put on hold. It's still operative, but there's nowhere to go and nothing to do with it. I don't doubt that it's at least part of the reason many deposed clergy leave the church and never come back. Yes, there's lots of shame and embarrassment to get over (and you never do, by the way, not really, not way inside), but there's that nag of a vocation, too.

I may say this too often, but it feels obligatory, somehow: Nothing of what I say about deposed priests should be taken as making excuses for misconduct, especially sexual misconduct. I don't want to provoke sympathy for men (and some women but mostly men) who break faith with the church by violating their ordination vows. I'm sure that sexually abusive priests should be deposed, and that having sex with church members is, by definition, abusive. My prayer, though, is that the church, especially its bishops, might appreciate the predicament deposed clergy create for themselves. My experience, at least, has been that one doesn't just walk away from ordained ministry. Breaking one's vows does not mean that one has broken the tie that binds. Nothing has made this clearer to me than returning to the church after some years away and then trying to fit in as a layman, something other than what I've been set aside to be.

Some days, especially Sundays, it's just plain maddening. The yearning makes my heart ache. The liturgy of the church owns me. It is the text of my expression of praise and thanksgiving before God. It is in the fiber of my limbs, and every prayer evokes a memory of my being in liturgical leadership, of having been set aside for the special, limited purposes of the presbyterate. My body and soul ache to be free of deposition. My conscience tells me, however, that that simply can not be, must not be. It's not a mill stone matter, but my offense has put the fulfilling of my vocation to ordained ministry on hold and out of reach.

Therapy and spiritual direction have helped but not relieved the ache I have come to call ontological pain. It's as though I were disabled by having done something stupid. Let's say I had dived into a lake without testing the depth, broken my neck and become a quadriplegic. Disabled for life for want of a moment's good judgment, bound forever, aching to walk again, to be whole. Let's say I had done something stupid as a priest, had an affair. For want of judgment, I am now disabled, aching to be whole. Not a chance.

I wonder how other deposed clergy experience these things. I wonder whether they know what I mean by ontological pain, the disorienting experience of being set aside for a special purpose -- not made better, not elevated in any sense -- but ordained to serve, instrumentally and sacramentally, only to squander God's spiritual gift. No longer set aside but sidelined.

Ordination changes the structure of your being. It's an ontological event. You're changed forever into something other than you were before. It's no longer possible not to be a priest. That's why the shoe doesn't fit when you try to be other than a priest, within or without the church.

I wonder whether priests who have not been deposed appreciate fully what's happened to them. I hadn't. I believed some things in an abstract way about the nature of ordination, its indelibility, its soteriological implications. (Mill stones, again. Don't ever forget the mill stones.) We Episcopalians make a big deal of ordination, and we should, but why hadn't I appreciated more fully the theology of ordination? I suspect it had something to do with wishing to avoid the idea that ordained ministers have some sort of special status. We spent a lot of time in seminary talking about not wanting to be thought of as a privileged caste, even though every external expression of our hierarchical system screams privilege. I'm willing to accept the paradoxical aspects of ordination -- special but not elevated, highly trained and educated but not privileged -- and I understood these issues intellectually as I left seminary. I did not, however, grasp the ontology of ordination; indeed, I chose not to explore it, because the very idea smacked of elitism. Imagine. Human beings actually changed by prayer and the invocation of the Holy Spirit.

Well, it's true, and nothing brings that home more than being deposed. If I were a bishop facing a class of postulants and candidates on retreat, I would warn them about what they were taking on. Not a role. Not a function. Not a profession. Not a career. A sacrament, holy orders: Personal, material substance set aside for the limited, special purposes of service to the church, bodies, souls and minds dedicated to bind and loose, bless, hallow and sanctify, witness and anoint.

It changes you, I would say. Forever. Don't squander it by doing something stupid.