Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Visible Sign

This morning my wife, my kids, and I sat around the Christmas tree and opened the gifts we gave one another.  Just as we were finishing, my wife's phone rang.

One of her parishioners was coming down from a bad high in a bad way.  The police were on the scene, and the whole family was understandably distressed.

I don't know many details, because as a priest she has to keep confidences.  All I know is that her parishioners were asking for her to come and help before things got out of hand.

Which raises the question, "How can a minister possibly help?"  She hasn't got a badge or a gun, so she can't arrest people and lock them up; she doesn't have a medical license, so she can't prescribe medications; she isn't a judge who can order someone to be placed in protective custody.

All she can do is be present with those who are suffering.  She can listen to those to whom no one else will listen.  She can pray with them, helping to connect those who are suffering with words to express that suffering.  She can deliver the sacrament, a visible and outward sign of indelible connection to a bigger community, reminding the lonely that they are not alone.

She quickly got out of her pajamas, put on a black shirt and her clerical collar, and picked up her Book of Common Prayer.  I kissed her before she went out the door, aware that she was going to a home where there was a troubled family, a belligerent drug user, and eight armed men charged with upholding the law.  Oh, boy.  "Do you want some company?" I asked, knowing there wasn't much I could offer besides that.  She said she'd be fine.

As she left, and the kids continued to examine their gifts, I sat and silently prayed (reluctantly, as always), joining her in her work in that small way.

I admit that I do not like church.  I can think of far pleasanter ways to spend my Sunday morning than leaving my house to stand, and sit, and kneel with a hundred relative strangers.

But this is one thing I love about churches: this deeply democratic commitment to including everyone in the community.  No one is to be left out.  No one gets more bread or more wine at the altar.  Everyone who needs solace, or penance, or forgiveness, or company, may have it.

The Book Of The Acts Of The Apostles, the fifth book of the Greek testament, tells the story of the early church as a place where people who needed food or money or other kinds of sustenance could come and find them.  Early on in that book we even see the story of how the church made a special office for people whose job it would be to oversee the equitable distribution of food to the poor.

I think highly of my own profession of teaching, because I think it serves a high social good.  But I teach in a small, selective liberal arts college.  Most of the people I serve have their lives pretty much together.  In general, they can pay their bills, they don't have huge drug or legal issues, they have supportive communities, they can think and write well.  Yes, most of them struggle with money and other things, but they keep their heads above water, and their futures are bright.

My wife, on the other hand, has a much broader "clientele."  She serves the congregations at our cathedral and several other parishes.  Her congregants range from the powerful and wealthy to the poorest of the poor.  Here in South Dakota more than half our diocese are Native Americans, and many more are refugees from conflicts in east Africa.  Ethnically, racially, economically, liturgically, and politically, this is a diverse group.

And again, it is a group where everyone is - or at least ought to be - welcome.

The church has always failed to live up to its ideals.  I don't dispute that.  Show me an institution that has good ideals and that always lives up to them, and I'll readily tip my hat to it.  What I love in the church is that it has these ideals and it has daily, weekly, and annual rituals by which we remind ourselves what those ideals are.  We screw them up, we distort and bastardize them, we even sell them to high bidders from time to time when we lose our heads and our hearts.  But then we remind ourselves that we should not.  And we have institutions and rituals of returning to the path we've departed from. 

We will probably always get it wrong. I'm okay with that, as long as we keep turning back towards what is right, as long as we maintain these traditions and rituals of self-examination and self-correction.  And as long as we cherish this ideal of welcoming everyone, absolutely everyone.  I don't mean just saying we welcome everyone, but I mean doing it.

Again, I work at a small college.  Colleges are places where we all talk a good game about being welcoming, and for the most part, we manage to practice what we preach, given the communities we work in.  But there's something really remarkable about seeing that ideal at work in a community where there are no grades and no graduation, where the congregation is not just 18-22 year-olds with high entrance exam scores, and where no one gets kicked out for failure to live up to the ideals of the place.

Last night we celebrated Christmas with hymns in two languages.
Hanhepi wakan kin!
Wonahon wotanin
Mahpiyata wowitan,
On Wakantanka yatanpi.
Christ Wanikiya hi!
That's the second verse of "Silent Night, Holy Night," from the Dakota Episcopal hymnal.  We sing the doxology in Dakota, and I'm happy to say that most of the white folks at several congregations in the area have it memorized in Dakota.  These are small things, but they might also be big things. If the baby Christ was the Word incarnate, surely little words can make a big difference.

My wife came home a hour or so after she left this morning.  I don't worry so much about her sudden comings and goings as I once did.  She gets calls late at night from broken-hearted families watching their beloved die in our hospitals.  Will she come and pray with them?  Will she come hold their hands for a little while, and be the vicarious presence of the whole church as they suffer?  Will she anoint the sick as a reminder of our shared hope for well-being for all people? Will she come to the jail to talk with the kid who has just been arrested, or to sit with his frightened parents?  Will she come to the nursing home where they're wondering if this is the last holiday a grandparent will see?

Yes, she will.  This is her calling, the work she has been ordained to do.  It is the work of love, and I love her for it.

As she walked in the door, I was going to greet her when her phone rang again.  I recognized from her conversation that it is a parishioner with memory problems who calls her almost every day to ask the same questions.  Sometimes it seems he has been drinking; most of the time it seems he is lonely and afraid.  I knew my greeting could wait, and as she patiently listened to her parishioner, I joined her in silent prayer, thanking God for the kindness she shows and represents, a visible sign of the ideal of our community.  She cheerfully wished him a Merry Christmas.  I think she was glad he knew what day it was.

I don't know how she does it, but she makes me want to keep trying.


  1. Very moving, David, the disparate threads of sudden violence, community of differences, a faithful vocation, speaking and doing, availability, listening, loneliness weaving in and out of a Christmas setting, opening presents before breakfast -- all realities rather distant you might think, as I read here in Israel, where there is no Santa and no Rudolph -- but no, very, very much with me. Thanks for the connect !

    1. Thanks, Ed. Being married to a priest has helped me see that clergy do a lot that is never noticed, and that communities that form around shared religion might be like the vitamins in our food that we never taste but without which we'd quickly grow less healthy.