03 August 2011

Billy the Chameleon

In the process of weeding out my files and moving my remaining office materials home at retirement, I ran across the file that contained all the liturgical materials for my ordination to the Priesthood on 29 December 1978.  One document stood out in that file:  the text of the sermon preached by Fr. C. Lee Gilbertson at my ordination.  Lee was the Rector of St. Paul's, Winter Haven, FL (where I grew up) during my teen years and most of my college years.  He was my mentor during the early stages of my vocational journey...mainly the years prior to seminary.

In that ordination sermon was a story about a rather unusual chameleon named "Billy."  His owner -- an English farmer -- was very proud of Billy, because he had a rather special gift.  No matter what color upon which the farmer placed Billy, the chameleon would quickly change to match that exact color....not just the greens, browns or grays; but any color. 

The farmer delighted in taking Billy to pubs in the evening.  He would place Billy on the bar and invite anyone to place any color cloth on the bar.  Billy would scoot over to the cloth, settle in the midst of it and -- in the time it took to blink twice -- he would shift to that exact color.  The brightest blues, reds, purples; it didn't matter.  There was no color Billy could not acquire.   Tourists and visitors would make bets, and the farmer always won.

Until one fateful night.  The farmer entered his favorite pub with Billy riding in his shirt pocket -- head poked out and taking in the view.  The farmer ordered a pint of his favorite bitters and settled down.  Very soon, a group of his buddies came up with a stranger in tow.  Would he be willing to show this stranger Billy's rare gift?  The farmer readily agreed and placed Billy on the bar.  The chameleon puffed out and made himself ready.  A line of brightly colored cloths were laid out in a line along the bar.  Sure enough, as Billy settled on each piece of fabric, he would change to that color.  Things were going swimmingly well, and there were hoots of joy and clapping as Billy moved along the bar. 

The stranger looked awed and, toward the end of Billy's act, asked if he might put his own cloth down for the chameleon to walk on.   The farmer allowed as to how that would only be fair.  The stranger had a thick, Highland Scottish brogue.   From his jacket pocket, he pulled a brightly colored neckerchief -- in the tartan of his clan.  It had five different colors in an elaborate pattern typical of ceremonial tartans.  He laid his neckerchief on the bar for Billy.

True to form, Billy walked onto the neckerchief and settled near the center.  Then something very strange happened.  Billy began to breathe heavily and rapidly.  He puffed up and then let go.  He raised himself on his legs and twisted -- first one way and then another.  His actions became wilder and more erratic.  Finally, Billy heaved in a spasmodic convulsion the likes of which completely startled the farmer.  Then, in an instant, poor Billy simply burst and died.

There was an erie silence in the bar.  The Scottish visitor as aghast and tried to utter apologies through stutters of shock and dismay.  He had meant no harm.  He had fully expected to see Billy become the most beautiful blend of tartan colors imaginable.  But this?!  There were no words possible.

As his astonishment abated, the farmer took on an unusual visage of circumspection and calm.  After many moments, he finally spoke in the otherwise silent pub.  "Billy was the most special and  admirable of his species," he reflected.  "I know what has happened here.  Billy always did his best with his rare gift of changing to any color of the rainbow.  One by one, he could become what was needed at that moment.  However, when he settled down on that lovely tartan, poor Billy couldn't become all those colors at once.  Try as he might, his body just couldn't respond appropriately.  Finally, in a valiant effort, he tried to make all those colors appear -- and, as you see, it just caused him literally to come apart."   With that, he reverently gathered up the remains of his beloved chameleon, wrapped him in his handkerchief  and left the pub to bury him in the garden of his cottage.

While I knew at the time what the moral of this story was all about, it took me a number of years to really embrace and own it for myself.  In my vocation, the parish priest is the last of the true "generalists" in our culture.  At given moments, we are theologians, psychologists, educators, preachers, liturgists, contemplatives, business persons, managers, historians and several other roles.  We take these on in succession -- sometimes rapid succession.  We can meet the unique needs of individuals in a variety of pastoral circumstances.  None of us are good at all of those things, and we may have great gifts in one or several of them.

However, none of us -- aboslutely none of us -- can be all of those things at the same time.  Absolutely none of us are able to meet everyone's expectations for what priest "should" or "ought" to be doing.  There is no benchmark, I learned the hard way.   There was a time -- a number of years ago -- when, like Billy, I almost burst in a metaphorical manner.  Trying to meet all the needs and expectations at once led me to the very edge of an ugly abyss.  It was a place God had never intended me -- or anyone -- to be. 

The final decade of parish ministry for me was one of doing each job in succession and "majoring" in the areas I was best suited with my particular vocational gifts.  Anger often ensues in folks who demand a veritable tartan of actions -- all at the same time.

I speak from the perspective of my own life and work.   Needless to say, almost any vocation has a tartan of expectations.  In our increasingly mobile and information driven society, we are expected to be more present, more informed, provide more answers, cover more ground with greater speed and alacrity than anytime in history.  Is it surprising that we consume more pyschotropic medications and suffer from more stress related illnesses than any other time in human history?

One of the "graces" of retirement -- even after a month -- has been simplifying my life and taking on only one project at a time.   And, I have been quite busy.   My goal is to be a voice for the responsible simplification of vocational life...no matter what vocation is may be.

Next:  Simplification

In Christ's Love,

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

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