Sunday, December 02, 2007

My first 40 years as a priest

I was ordained in Topeka, Kansas forty years ago and today I want to share with you some of my reflections on my life as a priest. I am deeply grateful to God for the past 40 years of ordination. On the whole, they have been wonderful years (that is, full of wonder). There have been very few days out of the past 40 years of ordained ministry when I have wanted to do or to be anything other than Episcopal priest. For me, it has always been a real privilege and honor to be a priest -- and that has been true even when the times have been rough. And they have been rough at times.

Two years after being ordained as the most conservative and, probably, one of the more racist members of my seminary class, I spent an afternoon listening to the stories of several Black students who were holding a civil rights demonstration at the University of Kansas where I was chaplain back in 1965. The stories I heard had such power for me and they represented so much of the presence of God I had read about -- so I joined them and, with 103 Black students, was arrested and jailed..

The County Jail was overflowing, with the male students 4-6 to a cell on the second floor and the women on the first floor. The students asked if they could be released from their cells for just 5 minutes, so I, the minister and only non-student, could lead them in prayers. My life and my understanding of the church changed that day more than on any other. The pain in the arrest came three months later, when my bishop, who had urged his clergy to be involved, caved into some very vindictive people and, in effect, put me on half salary for the next year and a half. I lived through that with him and more; but three years later, it became a choice between leaving the work and the people I really loved. . .or becoming terribly cynical about the church as institution. Much the same thing happened ten years later, when someone else's fear resulted in my having to leave friends and colleagues I had loved ...and moving on.

There have been other kinds of heartbreak -- sitting up night after night with a young 16 year old boy as his mother died, leaving him absolutely alone, without other family. And in Madison, what seemed like almost weekly AIDS-related funerals at the church. So often the service was for someone who -- just weeks or months before -- had been in a pew mourning another friend's death. There have not been many months in the 40 years without some kind of heartbreak.

Most of my forty years have been in campus ministry and it has often been wild and woolly: as priest I was arrested and jailed twice, and then I went back to jail, only this time to coach an inmates chess team which then beat the University of Rochester faculty chess team five matches to two. In earlier years, I led encounter groups, hosted Allen Ginsburg at our Coffee House ministry in Kansas, wrote two books, learned fire eating and juggling, and through my service as trustee of one the largest public pension funds in the country I got to go head to head with Roger Smith and the full board of General Motors and other major corporations on moral and ethical issues. I couldn't dream of a more exciting or fulfilling life. But the best, the very best has been out of the limelight and with you and with the people at Christ Church, Warrensburg, Missouri, week by week building up the life of those church families. That has been the deep satisfaction.

Things have changed drastically since I was ordained 40 years ago. When I was ordained, women were not allowed to serve on Vestries, girls were not allowed even to acolyte, there were separate churches for Black and white Episcopalians. Mostly white Episcopalians did not know about Latin American, Asian or other kinds of Episcopalians. When I was ordained, it was like the congregation hired a priest to be its minister. Where the priest was, there was the church: it felt like the task of the lay people was to assist the priest in his ministry.

Things are so much healthier now, where my reason for being here is to support you in the real ministry of the church -- the living out of the Christian faith in our families, in our businesses, in our schools and hospitals and agencies, as we try to reflect the will of God in this Valley. My job is to feed, to nourish, to support, sometimes to inspire, but then to get out of the way -- because you are the ministers.

What I would like to do is four things, fairly briefly: I'd like to tell you something about what it means to me to be a priest; to tell you some of the things I am most proud of; to share a couple of secrets; and then to say thank you -- to you and to God.

What it is like to be a priest? to be a priest is to wrestle with an on-going contradiction of isolation and intimacy. On the one hand, there is a powerful intimacy with people. It is an intimacy of being with you as you struggle with the most personal details of your lives. It is the intimacy of being privileged with the deepest doubts and the most serious questionings and struggles of so many people. What many of us have with one or two or maybe three people in our lives, a priest may have with hundreds of people over the years.

But over against the intimacy, is the isolation. Often, when I walk into a room with my clericals on, a hush settles over the conversation. And invariably people apologize to me for their language, or for being angry or upset – as though I'm holy God or a non-person. The worst came 26 years ago when I announced to the congregation that my wife and I had just adopted a baby boy. One member of the congregation cornered Judy at the coffee hour and with a loud voice that rang through the hall, announced, "What a wonderful way for a minister to have a baby!" Apparently she knew something I had not known: there are three genders - male, female and clergy.

There is a certain, maybe necessary, distance in pastoral relationships. Some of that, I've found, I bring, myself, and much of it probably goes with the territory. I think sometimes my ill-conceived humor is an awkward way of protesting the isolation, the sense that there is something different.

The best things about the work of ordained ministry are the people and the enormous variety of challenges and tasks and demands of the work: teaching, preaching, organizing, nurturing, administration, counseling, studying, working with community organizations -- the list is endless. The worst part of all that is that no one can do all those things well. And there is so much that I have not done well: partly because of temperament, partly from the ADHD, partly because if you are fully committed to be a pastoral presence in the lives of your families, it’s hard to shift focus to the organizational/structural concerns -- just as if you are fully committed to structure, process and program, it’s hard to shift focus to the pastoral needs of your families. So, there is always a built-in frustration in a pastoral relationship.

I think the things for which I am most proud are also the things for which I am most grateful. Thirty-seven years ago, a fellow college chaplain, John Simmons, asked me to join him in trying to build bridges between the church and the homosexual community. From that moment on, that work has always been a part of my life. What I have learned is that it’s not about sex – it’s about what it means to be human and what it means to exclude those whom God includes. Our culture has made this very difficult. Over the years, I have heard such painful, tragic stories -- even of clergy children whose fathers would not let them receive communion in their churches. And I have experienced such wonderful lives and inspiring stories from both sides of the bridge -- and none more inspiring than in the life of this congregation. So it’s some pride. . . but much, much more gratitude.

The same has been true with the clowning. The clowning (the performance side) has been nourished by so many clergy and lay people, mostly, probably, by a young graduate student in North Carolina, Kenny Kaye, who had dropped out of school to juggle. He was so talented and so gracious and forgiving; but he was also shy. He could not even pass the hat. .so he was soon broke. So, with Kenny’s skill (he ended our act by juggling 3 ping pong balls out of his mouth) -- with his skill and my professional training in passing the hat, the two of us formed “Uncle Billy’s Pocket Circus” as a street show and performed all over the South, including the International Jugglers Convention Banquet Show. Kenny, a Jew, taught me to see the clowning and the juggling as an expression of my faith and of my ministry. It was through the clowning that I saw, more and more, the parables, the Beatitudes and so much of the life of Jesus as the ministry of the fool, the pied piper, enticing us into a deeper and more compelling vision of life. None of it would have happened without Kenny and a host of others, including David Fly (my spiritual mentor in clowning and foolery) and Pat Anderson, who inspired and challenged me to develop and organize “The Care Fools,” a clown troupe of fairly severely disabled clowns who worked miracles wherever they went – real miracles.

One part of the 40 years most of you don’t know about was that my church in Madison, Wisconsin, was, I believe, back in 1983 the first Episcopal Church in the country to provide public sanctuary for people fleeing for their lives from El Salvador and Guatemala, knowing that we would very likely be arrested and imprisoned for doing so. I know it was from that experience in Madison, that the work with San Pablo’s, our sister congregation we house, was so attractive to me. What we learned from the refugees, living with them day by day, was that they had much more to give and to teach us than we had for them. One family, in particular, were so kind and so gentle and so committed to their faith; but their bodies were covered with scars from being tortured by their own government. They had earned those scars, as Archbishop Romero had earned his death, by witnessing to their faith. It was another side of church that continues to touch me.

Following that experience, it has been such a joy to have spent 15 years working with the people of San Pablo. Again, we each have much to give, much to receive from one another. The bonds of love and respect between St. Paul’s and San Pablo are so important for them, and even more, for us. Our ministry with San Pablo is unique in our diocese and nearly so, in the whole of the Episcopal Church. We are so fortunate.

Of my forty years as priest, the last 15 years have probably been the best -- in my life with Ann, in my life with our children and most certainly in my life with you and the people of this diocese. You have opened your hearts and your lives to me so consistently, and you make such a difference in one another’s lives and in being a bright beacon for the people of this Valley who need you so much. Time after time, you have been willing to stretch, spiritually, and to risk your own comfort for the benefit of others -- for the homeless, for those who struggle daily for survival, for becoming a really inclusive church and for entering into such a wonderful relationship with the people of San Pablo. Thank you for your part in all that.

Briefly, three secrets. Shortly before applying for the position here at St. Paul's I was on the verge of leaving the active ministry and going on to something else. I went through a career evaluation center and the night before the end of the program, I could only see alternatives outside the church. Something happened that night I know not what -- but the next morning my vocation was never clearer and I have not had a moment's doubt since. It could only have happened with Ann's support and the grace of God -- both were critical.

Second secret: When I arrived here, I knew very, very little about running a church, being a rector (but that is not a secret or surprise to many of you). Now other clergy often turn to me for advice. Whenever that happens, I give thanks for your patience and your willingness, and Ann’s, to teach, to challenge, and most of all, to forgive me. I think the love we have had for one another has covered a multitude of mistakes and mis-steps. Mostly, when I have done things you have thought were especially good or wise, that’s usually because I had previously consulted Ann. You will never know how important Ann and her wisdom and her vision have been to us all these past 15 years.

The last secret, which is not really a secret but something maybe that I should have spent all my time on this morning. I think the real strength of any of us in ministry (lay or ordained) comes not from our natural strengths, but from our disabilities or our woundings. I know that is true for me. In retrospect, one of the gifts I received from my childhood has been a deep acquaintance with pain and with darkness. For me, lurking somewhere beneath the surface is a kind of melancholy or poignancy. It has to do with the fragility of life and sadness. I have never seen this as something that should be feared or avoided. There is a sadness to life, but it is never the last or the only word: more often than not, it is the gateway to our deepest spirituality. It's the other side of the red nose and it has been more than equally important.

So I think of the hundreds and hundreds of times I have been moved to tears by the heroism with which you and others have faced life and all it brings. I see it in the ways you and those who have gone before you have faced death or serious dislocations in your lives. I have seen you affirm the power of life and goodness in the midst of darkness and despair. I have seen you love and support strangers, the homeless, those who, at the beginning, seemed strange and threatening.

It has been a rich 40 years. Thank you for having me as your priest these past 15 years. Spiritually you have been a real Godsend to me. I have felt from the beginning here, that God has called me here, through you. I am really honored to be a part of your tradition of caring, your reaching out into the community, and your loving concern for all kinds of people. You have given me wonderful Vestries and the best Senior Wardens. You have surrounded me with support and love -- you have been willing to reach and to stretch in wonderful ways. You are wonderful partners in ministry. For that, I give thanks to God and to you.


Euphony said...

You're joking right? You have to be a good friend before you can be a blessing in another's life. Friend's don't behave the way you do and neither do Priests. You may have the pension but you no longer have a congregation and therefore no more of a Priest than I am.

Thomas B. Woodward said...

I really don't understand your comment. I would never say that one has to be a good friend before being a blessing in another's life. That runs against just about everything I have experienced or taught in my 44 years of ordained ministry.

I no longer lead a congregation but I am a member of one and also serve in my diocese and am an appointed member of one of our national church's committees. Priesthood in the Episcopal Church, however, is not tied to serving a congregation -- I'm a priest until I die.

Something I've written has really bugged you - I'd like to know what that is.
Tom Woodward