30 July 2011

Are the Ideal and the Practical Mutually Exclusive?

In the struggle that raged within me about the possibility of becoming an Episcopal Priest, I most often had a romanticized picture in my head of what life in that vocation might be like.  For a guy like me...immersed in the life sciences and heading for medicine or some kind of research...my initial fear was the relevence of being a priest in a culture that had, at that time, declared that "God is dead."  In my own heart and head, I knew that to be a great falsehood.  However, I did not know then how to square that with the world around me.

I remember a trip just after graduation from the University of Florida (1972), when I drove my mom to Miami to see her Aunt Esther (my great aunt).  Mom's family comes from a long line of Anglicans...going back as far as they had traced...and Aunt Esther had done a great deal of geneology.  It was one reason for the visit.  Aunt Esther and Aunt Clarise (my grandfather's two sisters) both lived in Miami and were wonderful people to visit...even for a 21 year old recent college graduate.
Aunt Esther was very involved in her little Episcopal Church not far from her home.  On our second afternoon with her, she took me with her to the church to deliver some material for a program they were having that evening.  When I arrived, the place was a beehive of activity.  The priest was in the courtyard preparing to climb a ladder to the roof with some shingles for the three parishioners who were doing repairs.  When he came down, he introduced himself and proceeded to show me around the small but well maintained complex.  He was what I had idealized as the quintessential parish vicar...doing ministry but having time to "putter about" the church, study, pray, write and effectively engage his particular niche in the surrounding environment.  That visit helped "sell" me on life as an Episcopal Priest.

Three years and three months later, I was in seminary.  The time between the Miami visit with Aunt Esther and my being in on the threshold of graduate studies in a seminary had been filled with an intense and rewarding life in the U.S. Navy Submarine Corps.  I had been engaging the world in a rather unique way.  I had emerged a good bit wiser for sure, but I was still embracing a totally romanticized image regarding the life of a priest.  Seminary would not help that framed ideal.  I loved academics and the seminary routine of study, prayer, writing and living daily with my fellow students.   In fact, even though professors (most of whom were priests themselves) warned that seminary was a "laboratory environment," my image of working in the larger Church simply grew more idealistic.  I would have this same routine "out there!"

Of course it didn't happen.  First, the invitation to continue my studies, earn a Ph.D. and teach Sacramental Theology, was met with me saying I needed to have at least three years of parish experience before doing that.  I never left parish ministry...for the 33 years that completed that cycle fo my life just a month ago today. 

Second, parish ministry was nothing like I had convinced myself it would be.  It didn't even match my observations.  Was I wrong?  No, but I was only seeing the parts that were presented at the various times I engaged the professional elements of that life.  AND, it continued to change during the years I was actively engaged in that work.

My first six or seven years somewhat floated my ideal of the parochial life of a priest.  I did a lot of pastoral work; taught classes in the parish and for the diocese; ran a diocesan institute for advanced studies (and preparing men and women for ordination to vocational Diaconate); celebrated liturgies; studied on seveal levels and preached -- often.  There was a rhythm, though I found the capacity to pray at the depth and to the extent I had experienced in seminary limited by daily expectations.  This troubled me ... and would for all the years leading to retirement.

As our culture devalued sabbath time and stores began being open on Sundays for shopping, the shift began to widen to include organized community activities that competed for the time that a faith community normally came together to deepen their common life through worship, prayer and formation.  A reality emerged very different form the ideal held by a 21 year old freshly minted college graduate who had struggled with vocation.

This story is only a snapshot testimony of what has become normal for our culture.  We see it happening momentarily in our federal legislative system.  What allowed me to survive, thrive and adapt to the rapid changes of a culture in parish ministry was the ability to be flexible enough to find places to compromise and engage my parishioners on ground that could be called "mutual" rather than rigidly insisting on things being what they "should" be.  Sure, I had moments of railing about it (still do); but the daily operational life of  the parish adapted to meet the largest possible needs of an increasingly secular society.

Now, in Congress and the White House, we have  folks who see society and legislative process as having a single ideal...which must be attained regardless of the collateral damage it might create or the well-being of the largest breadth of the balance of the nation.  In this statement, I am not defending a particular political party or ideology.   The entire system is stuck in a place of all factions wanting only their particular needs met without regard to the needs of any other group.  The system certainly isn't taking in the concerns and needs of the average, "broad middle" section of our population. 

Now that I am retired, I take more time to have simple, "what gives with you" kinds of conversations with folks in the grocery store, the bank, Starbuck's, the hardware store...anywhere there are a few moments to chat with good, average working folks.  Very few of these folks occupy radical ends of the political spectrum (either end).  They are working to pay their bills, take care of their families, raise their children, make ends meet on social security and medicare and have a decent sense of security in life.

Are the ideal and the practical mutually exclusive?  No, not at all!  They come together in a place called compromise.  It happens in a parish when the vocational ideals that define a faith community engage the practical elements of life in the world in which people now live.  We find ways to celebrate and honor both.

It comes together in our political/legislative system with ideals of the various elected groups engage each other to find the ground that serves the largest measure of the common good of the people the system serves.  There is no waiting until the next election.  It will simply be the same thing with a different set of faces and rhetoric.  We need to learn how to find the middle and celebrate our common measure of life.  If not, we risk losing what we have spent 235 years building.  


Fr. Fred
Retired -- At Large and Running Amok
Lee's Summit, MO

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