Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Blessing for Your Journey

Hanging out this week with Philly and Boston friends.
"Departure" seems to be a dominant theme over the last couple of weeks.  Not only have I announced my departure from St. Clement's and Philadelphia, but I've had to say goodbye to several folks, who have left--albeit only temporarily--on vacation.  Fr. Reid has gone to Britain for 10 days for his birthday; our rector's warden and webmaster have taken a long overdue honeymoon in the UK; and our master of ceremonies left a couple of days ago for a cruise with his parents.  Fortunately, these departures have been offset by the arrival of a friend or two from out of town and a lot of fun with my regular locals.

Duccio, Jesus sending forth the disciples.
Mindful of the many dangers and challenges that can arise on a person's travels, even when it's an eagerly anticipated vacation, I have begun to ask the traveler if he or she would like a prayer and blessing before setting off.  As members of the Church, we seem to be pretty good about offering the prayers that have become the bread-and-butter staples of our liturgical life, but we tend to be less attentive to praying for each other in those moments when we step outside the parish precincts.  If we are to pray without ceasing, as the Bible and the traditions of the Church suggest, then we should work harder to offer prayers for a range of ordinary events and milestones.

The day before the departure, I ask the traveler if I can offer a prayer for him or her for safe travels.  I flip to the back of the Anglican Breviary, which contains a series of prayers, as well as versicles and responses, known as the Itinerary.  The entire service is rather lengthy, so I generally just select one of the prayers for sending forth, such as this one (which I have translated into contemporary English):

"O God, who brought your servant, Abraham, out of Ur of the Chaldeans, and preserved him unhurt through all the ways of his pilgrimage: we ask you to protect your servant, N.  Be to him, O Lord, a support in his setting out, a comfort by the way, a shadow in the heat, a covering in the rain and cold, a conveyance in weariness, a protection in adversity, a staff in slippery paths, and a port in shipwreck, that with you as his Guide, he may prosperously reach the place to which he is going, and at length return again to his home in safety. Amen."

I then offer my benediction:

"May the Holy Angels guard and protect you; may Blessed Mary and all the Saints pray for you; and may the Blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be with you this day and always. Amen."

Giving my first blessings.
Now, I admit that this is not much, but I have been very gratified to see how much people appreciate this small gesture of friendship and concern.  I wish we did a lot more of this sort of thing.  Leave-taking is an event that is often performed in a casual or perfunctory manner.  The noteworthy exception to this is funerals, where the departure is final and forever, and without the opportunity for the person who is leaving (or has left) to actually hear and receive the good wishes of the community.  It seems foolish to wait for the Big Goodbye to wish each other well and say: "Thank you for the relationship we've shared.  You are special to me."  Such an expression of connection can be nourishing food for the journey, sustaining us through unexpected trials and tempests far from home.  It is important when we are away from our home base to be assured that others are back there praying for our well-being and safety.  And it is not only true of when we travel, but whenever we are separated from the ones we care about.  I am sad to admit that I have often failed to tell someone from whom I am parting, whether for a little or a long while, that they matter to me.  For all those missed opportunities, let me simply repeat, "Thank you for the relationship we've shared.  You are special to me."

Monday, January 21, 2013

Farewell to St. Clement's

My dear people,

By now, you have likely heard that I will be leaving St. Clement’s at the end of April.  There are several factors that have led to this difficult decision, but principal among them is the strain of a long-term separation from my partner, Mike.  The rector and I initially committed to my staying a year, at which point we would evaluate whether I might wish to continue as curate for successive years.  In the last several months, however, Mike has received a series of promotions that has made it impossible for him to relocate, and so Fr. Reid and I agreed that it made sense to begin to plan for my departure.  The timing of this transition has been arranged, so that the parish will be fully staffed during the busy season of Lent and the demanding liturgical schedule of Holy Week and Easter. 

The second major reason for my departure is my growing confidence in my ability to lead a parish of my own as rector.  It had always been my intention at the completion of my curacy to return to the Diocese of Chicago, where I have strong personal and professional ties.  I am very fortunate that a number of very good parishes are coming open now, and returning to Chicago will make it easier for me to explore these vacant positions.  I will take with me the learning and experience I have acquired at St. Clement’s, which I will undoubtedly draw upon heavily as I work to be a good rector.  I take pride in the fact that I have received here something priests rarely get these days: intensive training in priestcraft.  I have absolutely loved the time I have spent sharing in Catholic liturgy, traditions, and devotions; collaborating with one of the finest choirs in the country; and practicing a deep and disciplined spiritual life organized around the Daily Office and the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. 

It has been a privilege, moreover, to serve as your curate during an important transitional period in St. Clement’s history.  Although I have learned much from you, I hope you have learned from me, as well, and that I have contributed something important and lasting to your life as a parish.  I have appreciated the many compliments you have paid me on my preaching, or my chanting, or my work to grow the mission of the parish, but I have most valued the ways that you have stretched and challenged me, demonstrated patience with my stumblings, and offered constructive criticism.  We have accomplished much together, and I am gratified by the start we have made here in the last year: Ashes-to-Go, the neighborhood food collection, the vestment exhibition, Outfest, and the Bible studies here and at Atria Senior Living.  I am especially thankful for your open-mindedness toward my attempts to spread the Gospel in more contemporary formats, such as my weekly blog and YouTube videos, which I hope will inspire you to share your own stories of faith.  The past year has been full of so many milestones for me—the Exsultet, my ordination to the priesthood and first mass, hearing my first confession—and none of them would have been as special as they were without you.  I am grateful to have the luxury of a leisurely departure, so that we can ensure the smooth handoff of ministries and responsibilities that I have led, but more importantly, so that we have adequate time to say goodbye.  I intend to make use of these next three months to thank you for being in relationship with me, for the many instances of your hospitality, kindness, and friendship.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the wonderful start you have given to my life as a priest.

God bless you all.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

On the Downton Abbey Premiere


Showdown between the Dowager Countess and Mrs. Levinson.
Like many of you, I was glued in front of my TV--well, actually, my friend's TV--for the much-hyped and anticipated premiere of the third season of Downton Abbey.  It's now 1920.  The Great War is over, and life presumably can return to some semblance of normality.  I was eager to see if Lady Mary and Matthew actually make it down the aisle, how Mr. Bates is faring in prison, whether Lady Sybil and Branson return from Ireland, and what new schemes Thomas and Mrs. O'Brien concoct.  My answer to all of these questions were felicitously answered, but what I found particularly striking was the larger social commentary on change.  Lord Grantham has lost almost all of his wife's money through a bad investment in a bankrupt railway, which puts the very survival of Downton Abbey at risk.  The Crawley family may have to sell their estate and move into smaller and more modest digs.  The Dowager Countess and Lady Mary attempt to bamboozle Lady Grantham's mother, played by the incomparable Shirley MacLaine, into forking over the money to keep the estate afloat, but Mrs. Levinson politely declines.  She observes to them, and to the Earl himself, that houses like Downton Abbey belong to a bygone era, and that one must adapt to changing circumstances to survive.

FDR at St. James Episcopal Church, Hyde Park, NY, 1935
I found this motif that runs throughout the first episode to be relevant to how we think about the Church, as well.  Like the antebellum landed aristocracy, the Church is an institution that operates under a set of rules, conventions, expectations, and structures that are grounded in a particular time period.  The problem is that this infrastructure falters and puts the institution at risk when the conditions around it change.  We, too, must adapt in order to survive.  Unfortunately, a common response to the threat of our demise is to throw everything old away and start over, to claim that we have done everything wrong and then scramble--sometimes rashly and haphazardly--to find new things that work.  That is hardly a healthy solution.  The real challenge, which Downton Abbey raises, is how to adapt and yet still be who we are at our core.  Any identity crisis, whether Church or British aristocracy, requires deep soul-searching to determine what is essential and must be preserved, and what is outmoded and can be discarded.  As I often say, being who we are necessitates a healthy tension between continuity and discontinuity, to avoid the equally unhealthy extremes of rigidity and chaos.  The Church must be grounded in something enduring, but we cannot be slaves to our institutions, either. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy Bris-mas!

Icon of Jesus' circumcision with St. Basil.
Yesterday, our sacristan, Sebastian, and I were talking about the upcoming Feast of the Circumcision, as he laid out the vestments for this morning's Sung Mass.  "Why is it," he queried, "that there is so little observance of this event in Jesus' life in the modern Church?"  Sebastian's question was a good one, and indeed, the First of January is usually observed these days as the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.  A couple of years ago when I was still a seminarian, I preached on both of these feasts, elucidating the connection between the name of Jesus and his circumcision.  For the audio podcast of that sermon, click here.

What's going on, though, as I said to Sebastian, is a continuing discomfort within the Church around issues of the body, and especially human sexuality.  The body is gritty, dirty, untidy, and has been endowed by the Church with a heritage of shame and fear; but the fact is that without those untidy bodies, none of us would be here, and that includes Jesus.  For some reason, people are made nervous by the idea that Jesus and Mary would have all the same human parts we do; and yet if we believe that Jesus was fully human, as well as fully divine, we must accept that he had, well--dare I use the "P" word--private parts.  See, even I get nervous trying to say it!  And Mary must have had hers, as well, because the Bible tells us that she had children after Jesus.  So, that calls into question our outdated and outmoded prudishness around the body.  After all, people in the days of Jesus often lived in a single room, parents and children together, with their animals, and the youngins were exposed to a lot more of human grittiness than we would think appropriate now.  Our Lord and Our Lady were probably not nearly as embarrassed as we are about all of this body-talk today.  So, before I get myself in trouble, I'll simply state that we all just need to get over all this body shame, with respect to ourselves, and with respect to Our Lord.  That just leaves me to wish all of you, as one of our servers said to me mischievously this morning, a Happy Bris-mas!