In many ways, it's been an incredible year - nothing I would have anticipated a year ago this time. Certainly nothing I would have anticipated even five or ten years ago. It's been nothing I could have asked for or imagined 20 years ago.
Which is why I don't make New Year's Eve resolutions, much to one of our daughter's deep chagrin.
Life has a way of taking its own twists and turns. Ironically, this seems to happen especially after you've committed yourself to a particular path. Something in the cosmos shifts. Suddenly, things happen. People come into your life to teach you things you didn't even know you needed to know.
As I look over the events of 2010, I find myself overwhelmed with one emotion: I am deeply, profoundly grateful. For the good stuff and the not-so-good stuff and yeah, even the bad stuff.
I would not be where - or, the person - I am without all of it.
Years ago, in one of those serendipitous moments when you know the Spirit is present, I had a conversation with the bishop who would ordain me.
I asked him once, rather boldly I see now, looking back at it, "What is a priest, and how is that different from being a prophet and a pastor?"
"A priest is, first and foremost, a Christian, and a Christian is, first and foremost, a grateful person. The life and witness, the ministry and mission of a priest is to be an outward and visible sign and symbol of a grateful heart - whose life is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for all God has done."Priesthood as an outward and visible sign and symbol of a grateful heart. A person whose life is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for all God has done.
"Once you understand your priesthood - whether or not you are ordained - you are also compelled, when required, to be a prophet and a pastor. Ordained priests dedicate their lives to being a manifestation - a living epiphany - of a Eucharistic life of the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving."
I love that definition of priesthood and have tried to live it as a standard for my life - especially in the 25 years I've been privileged to be an ordained priest. I especially love that it is the bedrock of prophetic and pastoral ministry.
Not that it has been easy. God knows the institutional church, more often than not, mitigates against Her clergy living into that definition.
The difficulty comes in two parts: First, being a "sign and symbol of a grateful heart" - especially when ordained to do so.
That's a pretty nebulous job description. The Book of Common Prayer doesn't offer much help. Check out the "job description" on page 531. There's stuff in there about how a priest is to "proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
That gets a bit fleshed out with these words:
"You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. You are to preach, to declare God's forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God's blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and the celebration of the mysteries of Christ's Body and Blood, and to perform other ministrations entrusted to you." (BCP 531)That last bit is the dangerously nebulous "other duties as assigned" - which some Wardens and Vestries translate to mean anything from being singularly responsible for repairing a leaky faucet, negotiating the price of repairing a furnace or water heater, unstopping a clogged toilet or mowing the rectory lawn.
See also: "Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound."
It can also mean being in two places at the same time, reading minds to know who is in hospital or has lost a job or whose marriage is in difficulty, and creating a church environment that never challenges and always leaves people feeling 'happy'.
Or as a former Senior Warden once said to me, "The church is like an ice cream truck, delivering good things to people."
That could only be said by someone who hasn't the faintest idea of what the church is all about, much less what it means to be a priest.
Yes, and he was Senior Warden.
One could hardly blame him. I mean, what does it mean to be a "sign and symbol of a grateful heart"? It took me at least the first decade to understand what that means, as an ordained leader in Christian community. Why would we expect some lay leaders to understand?
It has everything to do with the second part: "A person whose life is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for all God has done."
There are days when it is, indeed, a sacrifice to give praise and thanksgiving. Pauli Murray, the first Black (or, she would have me say "Negro") woman to be ordained priest in The Episcopal Church, once wrote
That's it. That's the best definition of that kind of 'sacrifice' of praise and thanksgiving.
It means that you 'keep on keepin' on' because you've read the Holy Scriptures of our faith and you know how the story begins and how it ends.
It begins and ends in The Garden, with a trip through The Garden of Gethsemane in between. The 'good news' is that our stay in Gethsemane is not forever. We're all going 'home' one day. All of us - sinner and saint, the virtuous and the scoundrel. We'll all be together, one day, back to the future in Eden, where we'll live eternally bathed in The Light.
The job of the priest is to fashion her life and her work in such a way that makes that truth believable to the skeptic or the anxious or the hopeless.
How that gets done in pragmatic terms depends on the individual person and the unique gifts and charisms for ministry given to him or her.
It requires walking the fine line on the tightrope of the challenges and perils of vulnerability and the joys and heartbreak of incarnate love.
In my experience, that "balancing act" can only be done when the human heart is filled with gratitude for all the things God has done.
Gratitude provides the ballast and the balance to keep from falling into and drowning in the often turbulent waters of our baptism. It allows you to take the risks of your faith to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted".
I've said this often in this space, but it bears saying again. What I know about being a priest was first modeled for me by the Roman Catholic nuns of my youth.
That role modeling continues today - often in more powerful ways than most priests and bishops in The Episcopal Church.
Sr. Joan Chittister is one of my personal heroes, whose courage and eloquence and spirituality continue to inspire me.
But, I'm thinking specifically right now, with a heart filled with gratitude, for two women - Daughter of Charity, Sr. Carol Keehan and Religious Sister of Mercy, Sr. Margaret Mary McBride.
Sr. Carol Keehan is the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association who led her organization to endorse the Health Care Reform legislation and thus helped pass it through Congress. The move put health care coverage within the reach of an additional 32 million Americans.
Sister Margaret Mary McBride, an administrator at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, made the decision to save the life of a 27-year-old pregnant woman. The woman, a mother of four, was 11 weeks pregnant, suffering pulmonary hypertension that would very likely kill her and, as a result, her unborn child. Sister McBride agreed to the abortion that would save the woman's life. Her diocesan bishop, Thomas J. Olmsted, has excommunicated her for it.
Oh, but wait. There's more. Last month, Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted withdrew the “Catholic” designation from St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center because he said the hospital wouldn’t accept his full authority about a medical case that he had deemed to be an abortion. The hospital had said it was acting to save a life.
Hell hath no fury like a bishop scorned.
No one - not RC canon lawyers, ethicists and moral theologians who had reasoned that the hospital had acted on compassionate grounds - had much to say about this recent development.
No one, that is, except the Catholic Health Association, led by Sr. Carol Keehan, who supported St. Joseph's Hospital.
I can’t help but note that, with the Vatican in the midst of two investigations of U.S. women religious, many people have counseled the women to keep a low profile. In this atmosphere, Sr. Keehan and Sr. McBride continue to take courageous stands.
But, they are not alone.
Last month, around the time of the national conference of Roman Catholic bishops’, the National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN), which represents some 500 women religious, issued “Oppose Bullying, Not Marriage Equality,” a statement that blasts the bishops for their pastoral insensitivity:
On behalf of GLBT Catholics, their families and friends, and thoughtful Catholics across the United States, the National Coalition of American Nuns is appalled at the lack of sensitivity of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to lesbian and gay persons.The position of the nuns foists the bishops on their own orthodox petards. They do not challenge church teaching against “homosexual acts.” Rather they call the bishops to fulfill their pastoral responsibilities by opposing bullying, and halting their hurtful activism.
More than a month has gone by since the media broke the news about a series of gay suicides. During that time, the US Catholic Bishops failed to make a single statement regarding these tragic, preventable deaths. Not one bishop’s voice was raised to condemn a culture where youths are bullied for being who God created them to be and are sometimes pushed by society’s judgments to attempt suicide. Many people have accused certain segments of organized religion, including the Catholic hierarchy, of fueling these attacks and contributing to suicides.
The annual meeting in Baltimore of the US Catholic Bishops offered an opportunity to decry these horrendous events. Instead, the bishops chose to discuss “the defense of marriage,” their well-funded attack on same-gender couples. They fail to see that the Catholic community is embarrassed by their silence in the face of brutality and incensed by their push of a political agenda against marriage equality—all at a time when their credibility on sexual matters is at a record low.
The bishops have not learned from the Minnesota experience, where Catholics returned the anti-gay DVD’s the hierarchy sent to each household in the state. The anger of Minnesota Catholics is erupting all across our country. Faithful Catholics believe their bishops should be preaching a message of concern and understanding, instead of rejection and hate.
The National Coalition of American Nuns calls on all US Catholics to rise up and say, “Enough, enough! No more discriminatory rhetoric and repressive measures from men who lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others and do not lift one finger of human kindness and compassion. We all need to work for a holy and just society and church.”
Sr. Sandra Schneiders, IHM has written in the National Catholic Reporter that women religious have a prophetic vocation. Prophets, as she explains it, reserve unconditional obedience to God alone even when that puts them into conflict with secular and religious authorities. They may consult many sources when formulating their truths, but they ultimately place God’s logic above human dictates.
That is a kind of prophetic witness that could not be accomplished without grateful hearts and the confidence and generosity that brings.
It is, indeed, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
I know the institution does not recognize them as priests, but they are in my eyes and in the eyes of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Indeed, would that more priests - men and women, Roman and Anglo Catholic, might follow this model.
Further, Sr. Schneiders writes:
Jesus’ prophetic ministry of word and work was not merely a threat to the particular domination systems of Rome and Jerusalem. It was a fundamental subversion of domination itself as the demonic structure operative in human history. The incarnation was God’s revelation in Jesus that God is not a supreme power controlling humanity through fear of damnation or extinction, nor the legitimator of human domination systems, but One who has chosen loving solidarity unto death with us to free us from all fear and bring us into the “liberty of the children of God.”As we begin the New Year and rapidly approach the Feast of the Epiphany, I give thanks for so many 'manifestations' of these outward and visible signs and symbols of a grateful heart. They continue to inspire and inform my own ministry and life as an ordained priest.
Jesus was the end of all domination systems, all systems of salvation by the power exercised by a few over the many. No such system, political or religious, could ever again claim divine sanction. It was this definitive subversion of the violent human way of running the world by God’s loving way of luring creation, including us, toward union with Godself that was the ultimate threat Jesus represented. The demonic “world,” the kingdom of Satan, was undone by Jesus who was bringing into existence a new creation, an entirely different “world” which “God so loved as to give the only Son.”
May we all be so inspired that we might resolve to fashion our lives so as to be part of the movement to usher in that "new creation", an "entirely different world" which is the dream of God, enfleshed in Jesus.
May we live our Spirit-led lives at the intersection of what it means to be priest, prophet and pastor - whether or not the institutional church recognizes or blesses that status or the work we do in the Name of Jesus.
That is the only resolution I make for each and every new year God grants me. I never know where that path will take - or, rather, lead - me. I only know that it leads 'home' - back to The Garden.
I hope you will join me as a companion in that journey.
And, as we travel together, may there always be a song in our weary throats.