I met Jim on my bike ride this morning. He works for the state DOT mowing rights of way. Nice guy. Used to farm wheat not far away. The thing is, when we introduced ourselves to each other I said “I’m Fr. Steve.” It just came out. An almost automatic response, and it raises an interesting question about how quickly you introduce yourself as clergy.
It can be problematic. My wife says that the quickest way to shut down casual conversation among a group of new acquaintances is for me to say that I’m an Episcopal priest. Earlier this year I was standing at the rail on a sightseeing boat. The guy next to me asked the usual questions: Where are you from, and what do you do there? I told him I was retired and then asked him the same. He said he worked for the county but was vague about doing what. After a few more chits and chats about not much of anything I said I was an Episcopal priest. He sighed relief and said he was a deputy sheriff.
“I’m on vacation,” he said, “and as soon as anyone hears I’m a cop it seems like my vacation is over.” Cops and clergy, and maybe some others, can find it hard to be a regular person, whatever that is, when they just want to relax and blend in. As for me, when conversation finally picks up again it tends to go in one of three directions. Fake embarrassment about all their sins and absence from church; exaggerated stories about miscreant clergy they have known; even more exaggerated stories about their personal piety endorsed by self righteous judgment of the world.
On the other hand, why not be profligate about being known as a priest or pastor? Maybe it’s a good idea to be as public as possible. As the old hymn says, if we mean to be saints of God then we can be met anywhere: in school, on lanes, at sea, in church, on trains, in shops, or even at tea. Meeting an avowed, ordained follower of Christ over a beer on the beach, at the rail of a boat, taking a break by a tractor, or in any other of the hundreds of places you and I are doing the things that we do every day, can help break the mold that says God is present only for an hour or two on Sundays in a church building. Not only can it take some of the mystery out of clericalism, it can also restore some of the mystery of Christ’s presence in the ordinary places of ordinary life.