|Michael Sniffen after his diaconal 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 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.
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.
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.
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|
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 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)|
"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|
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.”I am not certain of much in my life, but I know this much to be true:
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.
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!