Hello – My Name Is Fr. Steve

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. 

A Few Thoughts on Friendship

Kat Banakis wrote in the July 24, 2013 issue of The Christian Century about being alone among friends.  It’s an interesting topic, and one that I think about from time to time.  It’s often been said that pastors cannot be friends with the members of their congregations.  They may know them well, even socialize with them, some more than others, but the very job of pastor inhibits close friendship.  
I suppose there are many reasons for that.  The danger of forming a select, exclusive, inner circle of confidants is a big one.  It can suck the life right out of an otherwise healthy church.  The pastor-parishioner relationship is another, in the same way that physicians can seldom become friends with their patients.  Yet these are the people we know best, spend the most time with.  In fact, so much time that it often leaves little for socializing in any other setting.  Even in our contemporary world of openness and informality, there remains an aura of religious mystique that clings to ordained clergy and tends to separate them from the rest.   Especially in small towns, one’s label as a pastor, even a retired one, can create a barrier, a permeable one to be sure, but a barrier just the same, to friendships outside church.  Telling a group sitting around having an after work beer that you are a priest is a sure way to silence conversation.  I suppose friendship with other clergy is always a possibility, if there are any other clergy, and if those present are acceptable candidates for friendship.  It’s always problematic. 
All of that aside, what I’ve observed about close friendship among males is that they are often rooted in long relationships that have endured over many years, sometimes from childhood.  But there is more.  They also share a fondness for certain activities: golf, fishing, football, gin rummy, something to do or watch, frequently involving sports.  Some have been forged in crucibles of combat, firefighting, police work, etc., where it isn’t just teamwork that counts, but the crucial knowledge that your buddy has your back and won’t let you down.  Close friendships such as these, at least among males, are not the same as casual friendships in which conversation is limited to superficialities, and time together often falls under the heading of social or business obligation.
Speaking only for myself, I’m not sure that I have a really close friend, although I have casual friends and acquaintances.  I haven’t shared many of the things that lead to rootedness in close friendship.  Maybe it has something to do with all those introvert scores I get on various personality instruments.  My casual friends and acquaintances are people I respect, enjoy being with, and who seem to value what I can offer in our work together.  We see each other at community events, and socialize together in a cocktail party sort of way, but it would be hard to call that close friendship.  As with many others, I live far away from where I grew up, and any childhood friends I once had have been left far behind.
I can play golf, but don’t.  Football and hockey are favorite sports to watch, but I don’t go nuts over them.  Gin rummy and Bridge never tickled my fancy, or any other part of me.  What feeds me is to relax with a few others over a beverage of one’s choice to talk about politics, economics, theology, social issues, contemporary events, travel, the world, and stuff like that.  There is really not much call for that anymore.  Maybe there never was. 
So the idea of being alone among friends is a familiar one to me, and, I suspect, to more than a few other (male?) clergy as well.  It is not an uncomfortable place to be, but now and then I wonder what it would be like to have close friends, old friends, best friends. 

Did You Go To Church This Weekend?

Hey!  Did you go to church this weekend?
Not that many people do.  Not so many years ago it was the right thing to do.  The only question around here was which church and on what day?  When the question was asked, as it often was, “Are you Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish?”, an answer was expected.  There were other possibilities, but they were unimportant.  
That’s no longer true.  For many people today, it’s hard to imagine what good it would do to go to church.  It’s not a matter of believing or not believing in God.  You don’t need church for that.  “The people I want to meet are probably not at church.”  “My career and social standing don’t depend on which church I go to, or if I go at all.”  “I’ve got better ways to waste my time on a weekend morning than wasting it for an hour or two in a church.”  “As far as I can tell they are all a bunch of judgmental hypocrites.  I may be one too, but I don’t have to make it worse by joining them.”  
So what exactly is the purpose of church?  I think all people of God, and especially we Christians, need to think about that.  Why would someone who believes in God, or at least a god, and whose life gets along just fine without going to church, ever want or need to go to church?
Let me offer a few thoughts for discussion.  The ancient Celtic Christians talked a lot about thin places, places where the dividing line between earth and heaven, the profane and the holy, the realm of the human and the realm of God, came together in ways that did not happen elsewhere.  In these special thin places one could enter into the intimacy of communion with God Almighty.  I think that is what church is supposed to be – a thin place.
For we Christians, our various forms of worship are intended to provide an environment in which we join together in expectation of a thin place where, in communion with God, we can be nourished in body, mind and soul for the journey ahead.  Not all forms of worship work for all.  As an Episcopalian, I am deeply moved by our liturgy and the weekly celebration of the Eucharist (The Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, The Mass).  It always draws me closer to God, and often becomes a thin place.  A former colleague, who belonged to a church where loud music, bible thumping sermons, and rousing choruses of congregational Amens were the rule, thought our services were so quiet and boring that God probably fell asleep.  I thought hers were so noisy and chaotic that God could not be heard.  We each had our thin places, and they were different.  We each agreed that you cannot enter into the intimacy of communion with God Almighty and fail to be nourished in life changing ways.
But do you need church for that?  Can’t you find a thin place on your own?  The golf course, for instance, or maybe a favorite fishing hole?  We have several thousand years of testimony from those who have done just that, and every time, every single time, the intimate encounter with God has called them out of solitude and into the company of others searching for God in their lives.  God, it seems, keeps calling us not only into communion with him, but also into a greater communion with each other.  Whenever and wherever we gather for that reason, it is called church.
If you are not a church goer, think about giving it a shot.  Look for the thin place, but give it time, and don’t be shy about asking for directions.
If you are a regular church goer, ask yourself whether your church provides an environment in which thin places can make themselves known?
If you are a pastor, do you open the door to thin places, or do you keep them closed so they don’t get in the way of your sermons?
Thin places generate thick questions.

Stand Your Ground

A lot of the conversation around here has been about the Trayvon Martin case, and I imagine that the same is probably true for you also.  How big a role did race play?  Was justice served?  Why was Marissa Alexander not accorded the same treatment as Zimmerman?  They are good questions, but I want to go in another direction.  I want to bring into question the morality of so called stand your ground laws.
Florida law apparently affirms the right of every citizen to protect him or her self with deadly force (guns) against perceived threats to their life regardless of where they are.  I haven’t read the Florida law, and can only repeat what’s been said in the media, so let’s assume that what I’ve heard is roughly right.  Here in Washington we have something similar, and I haven’t read that law either, but I suspect it’s not quite as broad.  
Laws such as these are based on the romantic notion of a good person being confronted by a bad person who threatens to do serious harm.  As the romance goes, one should not be frightened into submission but encouraged to stand one’s ground, fighting back with whatever weapon may be at hand, that weapon most likely being a gun that is easily and legally available because the only defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
The whole idea smacks of old time Saturday matinee Westerns, John Wayne, and, sadly, all the vengeance movies of more recent years.  It’s enthusiastically endorsed by the gun industry, the NRA, and a few of my acquaintances, some of whom see themselves as the heroes of their own fantasies, and others who believe that the armed, ax murdering, rapist, robber is behind every tree and hiding in every shadow.  The truth is that that the romantic good vs. bad scenario is largely imaginary.  Life doesn’t work that way.
We’ve had two stand your ground shootings in our own small city within the last twelve months.  No race involved.  One featured a known small time burglar who smashed a store window one night, entered, was confronted by the shotgun wielding store owner and took off running.  He didn’t get far.  The store owner got him with several rounds of buckshot as he was running away.  The second had to do with two friends who spent the night drinking in the home of one of them.  They had an argument of some kind, and the visitor left only to come back a short time later, breaking down the door to come in and…do what?  We’ll never know.  His friend shot him dead.
Both were decided under the Washington version of stand your ground.  But for the stand your ground law, the first case could have been easily solved with a call to 911, the arrest of the culprit, and no one would be dead. No one would be a killer. The second case could have ended with a nasty fight between two drunks.  Maybe they would have spent a night or two in jail, but no one would be dead. No one would be a killer.
Self defense has always been a viable defense in the courts, but the stand your ground type laws, plus the current NRA inspired gun culture, encourage intemperate, impulsive use of deadly force.  It’s a twisted form of cowardly vigilanteism.  It puts everyone in danger of being confronted by some armed nut claiming that his or her life is being threatened, and shooting with impunity.
I would like to see the stand your ground laws repealed, but it seems unlikely until enough of us decide the best and most courageous of what it means to be American does not have to tolerate the worst and most fearful of what it means to be American.