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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Arrested Discernment: Occupying Faith

Michael Sniffen after his diaconal ordination
It has been my great privilege and joy, over the past 25 years, to assist literally dozens people through a vocational discernment process - not all of them on the ordination path, but including more than a dozen or so young people through the process of ordination.

Michael Sniffen is one of them.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Michael is 31 years old, recently married, a doctoral student at Drew University, and is priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn, New York. It is my continued great joy and delight to hear him introduce me as his mentor.

He was arrested for trespassing on December 17, 2011 - civil disobedience at Duarte Square in lower Manhattan - as part of the Occupy Wall Street Movement along with his clergy colleague, John Merz, Bishop George Packard, and several others. I'll come back to this in a minute.

One of the most important things I tell folks who come to me about discernment is that it is critical to remember that it is not about being "right" or being "wrong".

It's about making the best decision, given all that you know about yourself for as long as you have known yourself, along with the situation you find yourself in - right here, right now - and where you see God's hand in it all, leading you into an uncertain future.

It's about taking a risk and stepping forward in faith, piecing together the worn threads of what is in the past and the few, fragile strands of what is in front of you, and weaving them together with the threads of uncertainty about what lies ahead.

And, it's about being a grateful evangelist for all that God has done for you in your life, stopping, every now and again, to tell people you meet along the way about how God is working in your life.

Not so that you can be "right" or convince yourself or others about how correct you are. No. You do that to remind yourself that it is only by God's grace that you have been given the will to do these things and to inspire others to seek God's grace that is present and available to them in their own lives.

And, if you've done that and find yourself "wrong"? Well, I don't believe that God sees our decisions as failures.  Life is a wonderful laboratory in which we are asked to participate and experiment. There are no failures. There are simply lessons learned for the next part of the journey.

God knows, I have questioned my own discernment at various times since my initial sense of vocation in 1982. Really? I've asked, during those lonely, spiritually dry, confusing, anxious times.

Really? I've asked God. This - THIS - is what I'm supposed to be doing? You're kidding me, right? I could be making so much more money as a nurse and still doing an important work of ministry for you. Why don't I just hang up my collar right now?

That doesn't mean that I made the wrong decision back in 1982 when I decided to follow my "call" that led to the path towards ordination. It just means that discernment to vocation is a lifelong commitment.

Discernment is, in and of itself, a vocation.

You know, like marriage, which sometimes we learn - sometimes sooner, sometimes later - was a Very Bad decision. Not at the time. Maybe it was a Really Good decision at the time. The best we could make. Or, maybe we weren't so sure it was a Good Decision and it turned out to be the best thing we could have ever done.

It could also be a particular career path which we "found" ourselves on and then, later, learned that it was only meant to take us to a certain point - only prepared us to go only so far - so that we could begin to see the next path opening before us that we couldn't have seen any other way.

Sometimes, we make good choices. Sometimes we make make bad choices. Whether good or bad, as Archbishop Temple once said, God still reigns.

I believe, with all my heart, that, right or wrong, good or bad, "....for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to God's purpose" (Romans 8:28).

What's remarkable about the discernment process is that, sometimes, it is, in fact, a process. A gradually awakening. A gentle nudge. Sometimes, it comes in an instant. A huge PUSH wherein one's body begins to move before the mind can make sense of it.

But, there you are, your body on the path, your mind and heart scrambling to keep up.

We are going about the days of our lives, doing the mundane, common, ordinary things one does in the enterprise of being human, and then, out of the blue, we find ourselves in a situation where it all comes down to this one thing, this one decision.

Sometimes, you have to put your body where your mouth has been.

If you've ever experienced a situation like that, you can never read the story of Thomas - whose feast day we mark on the Calendar of Saints today - or The Annunciation of Mary without feeling some visceral effect - a knot in the pit of your stomach, or your pulse racing, or your respirations quickening.

Br. Morgan
You don't know if it's right or wrong. You just know that you are being called - yelled at, forcefully summoned, physically pushed - and that, right or wrong, you must act, even though others may judge you harshly for it and the consequences for your behavior may be some penalty you don't know how you will bear.

And, when you witness to what has happened to you, some will not believe you. Some will say you are doing it for your own gain. It's grandstanding. It's narcissistic.

Others - especially those who are also in discernment or are confused or anxious or frightened or (yes) envious - will attack your motives, and say all manner of evil against you. Still others will accuse you of passing judgment on those who disagree with you or who have not yet been able to take a stand.

And, that's just part of the price you will pay for acting on - and in - faith.

The thing of it is that I believe with all my heart that those who who attack your motives are also called to do just that. It's a form of refiner's fire - for both.

I say all this as a prelude linking you to a wonderful statement from Michael Sniffen. It was written at the request of his bishop, the Episcopal Bishop of Long Island, Larry Provenzano, and is now posted on the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island webpage.

It's called "Diary of An Arrested Priest", which takes us on his journey with him from the moments before and during and after his arrest at Duarte Square in lower Manhattan as part of the movement known as "Occupy Wall Street".

It's rather long but rather wonderful. I strongly urge you to read it. I love it as much for what it is as for what it is not. Here's why I think this to be so:

Jon Richardson, blessing me after his priestly ordination
First, it is thoroughly incarnational. It is Michael's story, told from Michel's perspective. It is how Michael understands himself to be living out the Gospel story and being faithful to what God is asking him to do and be in the world, and how he is responding to his perception of the presence of the Risen Lord in his midst.

It is thoroughly human. Michael articulately and eloquently expresses his doubts, his outrage, his passion, and his compassion, all laced with bits and pieces of Michael's own brand of humor.

It is not a rant against Trinity Wall Street in particular or The Episcopal Church in general. It is simply his eye-witness account of what he saw and what happened to him.  Indeed, there is neither guile nor judgment in any of it (unless you need to hear it in his questions).

Even though it is passionate and convincing and convicting, there is plenteous evidence of ongoing, prayerful discernment - every step of the way: At the fence. On the ladder. In the vacant lot. In the paddy wagon. In the jail cell. In his congregation, preaching and presiding, the next day. 

Megan, moi, and Jon
Jesus and Megan
I don't know if Michael made the right decision or the wrong decision on December 17, 2011, to move from being a witness for peaceful demonstration and pastoral presence to climbing the fence and doing civil disobedience.

I happen to think he made a courageous decision and I support him.  That does not make either of us right or wrong. It's simply where we have both discerned ourselves to be in this complicated, complex situation.

Sometimes, you have to break a few rules in order to change a few laws. And, hearts. And, minds.

You never know when that moment will arise. I chuckle when I recall that Bishop George Packard, himself a retired military man and the retired Bishop Suffragan of the Armed Forces, was first arrested at Zuccotti Park because he was bringing water to those encamped there.

Bp. Packard (Andrew Burton - Reuters)
He, himself, was neither demonstrating nor "occupying". He was just following the Gospel imperative to minister to the "least and the lost". Still, he was arrested.  "Hey, I'm not one of them. I'm a retired Army. Served in 'Nam. I'm military - just like you," he said to the NYPD officer who arrested him, but his words fell on deaf ears.

"But, I was only bringing them water," he protested to one of New York's finest as he was handcuffed.

And, in that moment, an "Occupied Bishop" was born - the one in the "Crayola Magenta" cassock, which had been given to him by Desmond Tutu, who was the first one up the ladder and over the fence at Duarte Square in an act of civil disobedience on December 17, 2011. 

I have my own share of stories of those kinds of "Thomas" or "Annunciation moments". I'm sure you do, as well.

Michael and the cake his 'friends' made him
I encourage you to read Michael's story.  Toward the end of his piece, he writes,
The Kingdom of God is inside us and all around us. The world is a mess and yet the beauty of community is springing up in the most unexpected places. In an empty lot. In a prison cell. God is building staircases into our hearts this Advent. Sacrificial love is rushing up those stairs. It is the most powerful force on earth and it cannot be stopped. “We are unstoppable,” says God. “Another world is possible.”

What happened on the 17th of December will be forgotten pretty soon. The media cycle will move on. People and institutions will move on. I’m out of jail now, but I am still arrested. God’s Holy Spirit has placed me under arrest. It’s troubling and comforting and overwhelming. I feel completely alive and scared and hopeful. I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief. Help me climb your staircase one step at a time and meet me on the other side. For you promised, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Be with us all in this season of brokenness and mending.
I am not certain of much in my life, but I know this much to be true:

To be in discernment is to enter into the mystery of having been arrested by God and freed for service of sacrificial love to God's people.

Discernment is one of the greatest acts of faith I know.

As Fred Buechner once wrote:
"Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent and full of surprises.....Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting".
Please read "Dairy of An Arrested Priest" to see what I mean.

In these last few days of Advent, I wish a Blessed St. Thomas Day to one and all!


Kirkepiscatoid said...

"To be in discernment is to enter into the mystery of having been arrested by God and freed for service of sacrificial love to God's people."

Ain't it the truth, dear Elizabeth, ain't it the truth.

(WV: "Looprop" Is that like a laptop?)

it's margaret said...

Thank you for this.

And I thank God for this fine priest. Amen. Alleluia!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - Well, it's my truth, anyway. Others may disagree. I'm quite certain they will.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Margaret - He's one of the finest.

stanchaz said...

You don’t even need to be religious to understand -and embrace- the idea that "Whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." But many in the 1%, in their blind greed and endless schemes, have forgotten this, and have closed their eyes to what the word "society" should really mean. But because of Occupy Wall Street, we are finally talking less about CUTS and more about BLEEDING. Instead of demanding m-o-r-e budget cuts -to be borne by the middle class and poor- we are FINALLY focusing on the shameful bleeding that the poor and middle class has endured for all too long. Instead of talking about even m-o-r-e cuts in the taxes of millionaires....we are now talking about fairness and justice - about an economy and a political system that is increasingly run for the rich, and by the rich. Instead of talking about LESS government, we are talking about a government that WORKS FOR ALL OF US, not just a favored few. Thank you OWS, for reminding us that people -ordinary working people- really DO matter, and for helping open our eyes to what’s really going on in this country. In a city where there is precious little public space that we can call our own, this is much more than a plea for sanctuary: It’s a hard-fought carving out of a protected space amid the repression, an expression of conscience and affirmation... continually reminding us, goading, prodding, annoying, inspiring, illuminating and encouraging us..reminding us what of we’ve lost, of what we can do, and what we can be. They would pen us in, they would permit us to death, they would tell us to “ move on, move on, there’s nothing to see”.....don’t block the street, don’t trespass, don’t EXIST. You don’t belong, you don’t count, you don’t have a right to even be here.... A city where control-freaks would sweep us under the rug and out of the they deny us, as deny our lives, as they deny our very futures. But OWS responds, loudly, BOTH in word and in DEED: we BELONG, we STAND our ground, and we DO matter! This is OUR land, and we want it BACK! The word OCCUPY says it all! That’s why OWS has captured our imagination. That’s why this living breathing public space is important. OWS needs to have these candles of occupation burning, as a powerful and concrete reminder of our presence and our persistence...and as a symbolic light that continues to illuminate and inspire in the storms around us. Trinity Church with its oft-proclaimed ideals (and its huge land holdings), should look deep into its collective soul, do the right thing, and help OWS secure these spaces of refuge and hope for OWS. For, if Christ were physically among us today, as He was 2000 years ago, He would be among the FIRST to climb those fences, and occupy Trinity’s Duarte Square. Of this I am certain... 

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

stanchaz - I'm sure there are some - not many, but some - who read this who do not share your certainty. And if they don't, they are envious of it. I'm convinced that, besides greed, envy is another contributing factor to the mess we're in. Envy drives greed. Which is why I try hard to practice gratitude every day.

Thanks for your visit and your comments, stanchaz

gerry said...


Thank you. Micheal's witness should be read by everyone... at Trinity and across the church.

And thank you for the reminder that Discernment is a state of being and not once and done.

Joy as Advent ends and God re "Occupies" the faithful.

Bidden or not bidden, God is with us, Alleluia

Brook Packard said...

Wonderful piece and great observations. However, my husband George was not arrested when he delivered water to Zuccotti Park back in October. There was a momentary standoff and the cop walked away. Had he been younger or with a different skin color, there might have been a different end to that anecdote.

The cassock he wore on December 17th was not given to him by Desmond Tutu. He joked with Michael that he didn't care what happened to it since it was and extra - "purchased" by the Archbishop of Canterbury. His luggage had been lost during the administrative mess that was Lambeth 2008 and he received a new cassock due to the snafu. It's important for those who support OWS to not embellish the truth so that when the police do cuff, pepper spray, and beat up those who are simply exercising their First Amendment rights (not to mention those who engage in civil disobedience or have a Middle Eastern surname)there are no accusations of spin.

One of the more supportive actions Occupy Faith and those who can wear the "costumes" of religious affiliation can participage in is to get arrested along with those in OWS who are occupying and getting arrested. Just one male, one female would help. Those arrested on December 17th were only in jail about 10 hours. Historically, the NYPD had been detaining OWS arrestees for 48 hours. I was surprised when George came home around midnight. Those on the other side of the fence that day, who were not wearing outfits nor trespassing were treated much more harshly than those who had broken the law.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for all the clarifications, Brooke. You're right - it is important to have all the facts correct. I have read in various places, for example - from otherwise reliable sources - that you were kneed in the chest anywhere from one to four times. I think I read an ENS account that you were kneed x's 3. I guess it doesn't really matter, does it? In the end, you were treated far worse than your husband.

I will try to keep the facts accurate. I'll rely on you to correct me if I got it wrong.

Thanks again, Brook. Know that you and your husband continue to be an inspiration to me and so many others.