Monday, July 25, 2011

The Edges of Monday

At my previous parish, Christ Church in Alexandria, VA, the clergy "day-off" was Mondays. (We had Saturdays off, too, but any priest will tell you Saturdays very rarely stay an actual day off.) During those two years with Mondays as my off day, I developed a lot of love for that system. Once Sunday was over I knew that Monday would be a relaxing day—a true sabbath. My wife still had to work on Mondays, but that just meant that most weeks I'd sleep in, roam around the house a bit, either bring her lunch or meet her someplace, and then have a semi-productive afternoon usually consisting of some mixture of laundry, video games, and a movie.

It could be a difficult system at times, though. Having my two days-off split up during the week made it hard to do anything at all on the weekends. Ever. I couldn't venture much more than twenty minutes from the parish. And it meant only one day off could ever be spent with my wife.

In the Diocese of Western Michigan, the bishop prefers a "continuous 48 hours" of sabbath "reserved solely for personal and family use." So, the easy way to accomplish that was to take Fridays and Saturdays as my new days off. I still wind up doing things on those days, and I try to keep track of it all, but for the most part it's a good system. It means I get to spend both days-off with my wife. It also means if we want to head up to Northern Michigan or over to Grand Rapids for the first part of the weekend we can.

One of the difficulties of this change has been that my Monday has shifted. Obviously it's now spent in work rather than sabbath, so I go directly from Sunday into the work-week... but that's not quite what I mean. I mean that the beginning of my week is different, different even than the way Tuesday felt at Christ Church. At Christ Church, Tuesday meant that the rest of the parish office had already been humming along one day. The clergy came in and got to work with a bevy of meetings, preparing for the following week, but that beginning of the week hit a bit more... softly.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Mondays are harder now than Tuesdays were then. Does that make sense?

There's always a full box of e-mails. My "to-do" stack may have lost many of the small tasks that I finished up at the end of the last week, but the remaining tasks all will require significant time to finish. The parish office tends to be busier with people coming in and going out. And though I often begin Monday with grand dreams of working on my sermon, somewhere between updating my calendar for the week and hearing about someone in the hospital, the plan to write my sermon early falls silently to the floor of good intentions.

In chapter 48 of St. Benedict's rule, we read,
From Easter until the Calends of October,
when they come out from Prime in the morning
let them labor at whatever is necessary
until about the fourth hour,
and from the fourth hour until about the sixth
let them apply themselves to reading.
After the sixth hour,
having left the table,
let them rest on their beds in perfect silence;
or if anyone may perhaps want to read,
let her read to herself
in such a way as not to disturb anyone else.
Let None be said rather early,
at the middle of the eighth hour,
and let them again do what work has to be done until Vespers.
What a lovely structured way to spend one's day, I think as I read that section of the rule. Everything laid out clearly, time for worship, time for work, time for reading, and time for rest. There will always be work to be done, Benedict knows, but there are other parts of our lives as humans that are equally vital.

One of the hardest things I wrestle with is how to organize my own time as a priest. Indeed, one of the reasons I stopped blogging was because I figured I simply did not have the time to write anymore. It didn't seem productive enough.

It reminds of people who worry that they don't have the time to pray. I always make a two-fold suggestion. First, one can always pray "in the cracks" of the day (while driving, in between tasks, while walking, etc.). But even beyond that, taking time for prayer will shift the way the rest of your day goes. It's not that prayer makes one more productive. It's that prayer makes one more attentive.

Over the past year, I've increasingly learned that it is not that I don't have time to write. Writing is an essential part of my spiritual life. The name of my old blog, Scribere Orare Est, ("to write is to pray"), still rings true to my spirituality. It may not always be productive, in the way I sometimes think about productivity, but writing always makes more more attentive. And this, of course, changes a lot about my productivity. Most importantly, it changes the way in which I am productive.

It's not that I don't have the time to write.

It's that (if you'll excuse the double negative) my spirit doesn't have the strength not to write. My vision doesn't have the clarity. My voice doesn't have the stamina. My leadership doesn't have enough reflection. If I don't write, many things suffer.

Mondays are indeed busy days at our parish. There is always one more task I could be doing. But I find that if I don't write, I don't pay careful enough attention to the tasks that I undertake.

Writing helps me find God in those tasks, kind of nudging at the edges. Writing helps me see the Spirit there, at the edges of an overflowing to-do stack, singing constant love to me. Writing helps me hear Christ's voice over the hum of the air-conditioner and the ring of the phone, speaking truth to my inmost being.

And when I see that, well, then Mondays seem to become as re-creational as when I spent them in sabbath.

So long as I take the time to look, to pause, to listen, and to write it down.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Somewhere in the Midst

There have been many joyful surprises over this past year as a solo priest. One of the most delightful, however, has been the pictures.

I remember when I was a child, one of my favorite things to do during church was to draw a picture of what I was seeing. It always looked the same: the big pulpit in the center of the M-21 Church of Christ with the baptistry behind it and the communion table in front of it. The preacher standing behind it in suit and tie. I'd work especially hard drawing the preacher because I never was very good at drawing people. He'd usually have his arms upraised in some act of rhetorical persuasion.

I don't know what I did with those drawings each Sunday. Maybe I gave them to my parents. Maybe I left them in the pew. I'm pretty sure that I never gave them to the preacher when we were shaking hands on our way out the door.

Over this past year at St. John's I have several times been handed drawings from children as I shake hands at the end of the service. They are always delightful. There is one child in particular who likes to draw a similar picture every time. A hill with a church on it. God is in the sky and there are usually three figures: him, me, and Thomas (the Tank Engine). Sometimes Jesus is standing there with us. I get the impression this is a happy picture for him... and I'm glad.

I do think that children draw "what they see" in church—not always what they see literally but what they see in their mind when church happens. I always saw a preacher preaching with hands outraised. The child I mention above always sees him, me, and Thomas the Tank Engine on our way to the church (though never inside, curiously enough). These drawings a like a window into a child's mind.

Last Wednesday, after our midweek Eucharist, another child handed me a picture. Like all the others, I think this was a picture of what she "saw" when she was sitting in church.

Two candles, flames burning. The altar cross which sits above our tabernacle. And somewhere up there in the midst of it all: God.

I never drew God in my pictures. I drew the sermon, probably because that was where I encountered God. As I looked at last week's picture when it was handed to me—as I look at it again now—I find it hard to express how very much it moves me, deep within my soul. Is there a greater thing in the world than the reality that this child really and truly sees God up there, in the midst of it all? That her sense of God was so tangible, so real, she didn't seem to hesitate to write it down.

There's a sense sometimes in Christian churches that children should always go and be a part of a different worship experience, whether for a part of the liturgy or for all of it. Our "adult" liturgy is supposedly beyond a child's mind to grasp. Supposedly. At St. John's, we do have a children's church opportunity for small children during the first part of the liturgy, but the children are always ushered back in at the Peace to be a part of the Great Thanksgiving and our sharing of Holy Communion.

It's almost an opposite image of what happened in the early church. During the peace in the early church the catechumens (those unbaptized members of the community) left the worship space. They were not yet a part of the Eucharistic fellowship, and so they would leave... until their Easter baptism. After their Easter baptism, they would finally stay.

In our church, I absolutely adore the image each Sunday of twenty or so small children running into the worship space during the Peace—a sure and definite part of our Eucharistic fellowship. And while they may not understand it all, I do think they understand much more than they let on. I think they certainly understand more than we sometimes give them credit.

They know that somewhere up there, somewhere in the midst of candles, crosses, prayers, and robes, God becomes present. Somewhere up there in the midst of it all God becomes present for them in a particular way, in a way they can reach out and touch and taste and take inside. They know that with enough certainty to write it down on a sheet of paper, with as much confidence as a child might draw a picture of an altar candle: God is there.

God is there.

And this priest, for one, is grateful to be reminded of that fact.

Jesus told his followers, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs."

I say softly to the little children, "Let us adults come to God, please help us, because sometimes we forget where God is. After all, it is to such as you that the kingdom of God belongs."

Friday, July 8, 2011


For the past three weeks I've been at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, studying in the Advanced Degrees Program there. I've found this time remarkably refreshing as the lens through which I view my work as a priest has been shifting. One's understanding of one's priesthood is always in flux, hopefully growing and deepening.

In some ways, this time at Sewanee has become a time of conversion for me. St. Benedict's second rule is conversatio morum, which is usually translated as conversion of life or conversion of manners. It refers to the constant conversion that must happen if one is to live faithfully as a disciple. I've heard a call to live that conversatio. In particular, I've heard a call to return to the image of listening for God with people.

"Where is God in that?" I find myself continually asking.

I have finished my first year at St. John's, my first year as a solo priest, my first year as a rector, my first year back in my home-town. As I reflect upon the joys and challenges of that year, I hear that same question coming back over and over again, "And where do you think God is in that?"

About halfway through my time at Sewanee, our noon Eucharist had finished and I wandered over to the small side chapel. Though I'd been in it before, I was surprised by how much smaller it seemed than when I was a student. There are only a handful of chairs lined up in single file along the walls on either side. At the back is a stand of votive candles. At the front is a small altar with a statue of Mary upon it. It's sort of the standard statue, Mary looking very Caucasian, very European, in pristine white and blue robes, standing upon a sphere with one of her feet standing on the back of a snake. Her hands are outstretched to those in the chapel.

It's sort of the statue of Mary you'd come to expect.

I took a seat, then knelt down, and began praying.

I've been surprised over this past year by the constant feeling that I'm always carrying so many things. No matter where I go, no matter the time of the day, there's always this sense of situations and people and struggles close at hand. I think I have pretty decent boundaries, keeping sacred space with my wife and home and not bringing work home as often as I could. But, still, I don't know if it's really possible to set down that bag of parish concerns. Indeed, some of those concerns are matters that I simply cannot set down.

I wonder sometimes if people know how much I agonize, truly agonize, over the decisions I make and the conversations I have. I take seriously St. Benedict's injunction that the leader of the community avoid "neglecting or treating lightly the welfare of those entrusted to him." Every single person matters deeply to me and there is rarely a way forward in any situation that won't leave a person or group feeling pushed to the side.

So I pray and talk and seek guidance. But in the end, no matter the decision, I still carry those parish concerns around, my mind always turning them over again and again, asking if there is a more faithful way.

The bag can get heavy.

I looked up from my prayer and saw the statue of Mary, arms outstretched, inviting. I swallowed, stood up, and walked toward the altar. Mary seemed to look down with eyes of deep sadness, her arms inviting... something. I believe mothers understand compassion in a very particular way. They know what it means to suffer with. I looked at the compassion in her eyes and felt the emotion well up within me.

It seemed as though her outstretched hands were inviting me. At the time I couldn't figure out what she was inviting me to do... but now, a week and some change later, I think I know. The tradition of the church teaches us that Mary is constantly directing us to her son. Looking back, I can see that her hands were outstretched towards me and towards the altar below. That heavy bag I've been carrying is not mine to carry. It's not mine to carry alone.

And so as I celebrated Eucharist on Wednesday, the comfortable words following the absolution brought profound clarity to my sense of ministry, "Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you."

How long has Jesus been saying that to me?

How carefully have I been listening?