The last six months have been filled with changes for my family and me. In August we went from having a resume out but assuming we would be in Traverse City for another few years to getting one call back after another to return to the deserts of Arizona.
Those calls turned into visits, an offer, affirmation from the bishop, quick sell of one home and purchase of another, packing, discarding, and driving. We celebrated Christmas in Phoenix for the first time in eight years with my family and began a new ministry at Christ Church of the Ascension. I am writing from my office overlooking desert and our memorial garden and parish hall. Surrounded again by books and icons, I am beginning to get enough traction to stop and process.
Leaving a parish is always hard. I did it very poorly when I left Phoenix all those years ago, and I was determined to do it right when I left Traverse City. Then the call came. There was misbehavior at the parish before I arrived, and it had not been handled well, so we spent a year behind the scenes trying to see justice done and protect victims. It was horrible. But in the end, justice and mercy seemed to kiss, and we began to move forward. Between my announcing my leaving and actually being gone, the man involved was reinstated to ministry and moved to a nearby town.
Meanwhile a ministry bought our home that provides housing for those in recovery. I had supported the ministry in its inception because it was so sorely needed in our area. And we have watched the absolute devastation that addiction leaves behind.
We drove away as we had planned for two months leaving in our wake two forest fires, one I had done everything I could to put out before and prevent from ever happening again and one we believed would be good for the place we loved but left.
Our lives leave wakes, and the deeper we run our boats the deeper and more lasting the effects. My wife and I have lain awake at night praying for and hoping for good to come out of these events that we had important but only partial roles in. We both worry about the legacy we left behind.
As a priest and pastor, my one calling is to build to Rule of God as best I can through preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. Did I make disciples? Will they last? Will the community that I shepherded these last seven years stay together until a new shepherd comes? What will their work be? And what work did I leave them to do?
What is my wake?
I want to say that I can act without thought of consequence the way that Patanjali advised in his yoga sutras, that somehow I can act purely and in perfect trust in God’s greater providence. I try. I comfort myself that I pursued justice and mercy and sheltered the victims, that I acted in best interest for all and not merely for my self or my family. I comfort myself with memories of what was said and what was meant, what was actually done and what I could not do.
But then I sit on the trailing edge of my perception and watch the wake of my work wash over the shores of people’s lives and pray that I got it right and that I can be forgiven for what cannot be undone.
In the wake of our lives is where so much of the effects of who we are and what we have done actually takes effect, yet so often we watch the bow of the boat cutting the waves in front and spend our hours navigating the way ahead, attentive to storms and enjoying the calm waters but rarely turning around to see what we are actually doing.
Transitions give us a chance to meditate on the long term effects of our decisions. I lament the people in Michigan I won’t get to baptize or bury, give communion to this week, or send off to college in a decade. I miss people desperately. But more, my pastoral heart hopes that the wake I have cut through the church will not erode the best of her people nor simply dissipate without a trace.
How do you plan a wake? I am not sure after all that you can plan a wake. I looked back with some pride that after that first year we had salvaged relationships and kept people safe, instituted changes to prevent any new abuses, and created a culture of welcome and safety, while protecting a sense of service to the stranger. I could not plan for what I did not see coming, though maybe I should have.
The problem is that, by definition, you can’t attend your own wake.
We have to act as purely as we can, acknowledging our limits, but also charting carefully where we go. Our lives after all leave a sure wake, just as a boats does in the face of the sea.
I think the appeal of a rule like the Rule of Benedict is that we have guidance for the mundane decisions and practiced line for the uncharted waters.
Many of the wake-leaving decisions of the last ten years of ministry were mundane decisions about time and attention. There were quick decisions, unplanned answers to on-the-spot questions that may not have seemed important until much later. This is where guidance is so necessary and hard to find. In ministry, as I suppose in most intentional callings, we work in the depths or at least over the depths of people’s lives and relationships with other people and with God. The mundane questions, even secular ones, have the potential to have deep repercussions that we cannot afford to ignore.
We also cannot afford to slow ever tie-down of a sail down to a group discernment process. We have to make decisions and make them well. So having guiding principles and practices makes it far more likely that we can stay on course and keep the sails in the Spirit’s winds.
Two quick examples from the Rule. As abbot, always consult, and always make the decisions that are yours to make. I like to take my time and think about things. The problem is that no matter how long I think, I only have one brain, one set of ears, one life of experience. But, when I consult with others, I open up whole new avenues of thought and wisdom. Even if it is just asking my wife what she thinks, or even asking the person presenting the question for their thoughts, better always involves more perspective. And yet, the decision is mine to make and mine to own. Better to be a sinner who repents than a righteous person who makes everyone’s life hell in the office. I often think blame is what got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden. Given the rest of the book, if they had just taken responsibility, God may have relented.
The second example is stability. Benedict insists that we are stable, not moving from place to place. This principle of the Rule extends down into regular decision making. I default to staying the course unless strongly guided to do otherwise. It is not always right, but it is really helpful in rough waters. I have rarely seen a wise path, well tested, lead astray. It is usually when we look for an easier, less disciplined approach that we go wrong. If the path we are one is good, then it should only be left for something demonstrably wiser and better to get us toward our original goal.
In the two issues above, both the church and home, I consulted all the people I could in both pursuing justice and in selling our home. We kept to the course of protecting the innocent and speaking the truth. Now some seem to think we could have done it better or differently, and they may be right. I really don’t know. But I know that I did all I could at the time. We stayed within the law, but I was not afraid to speak difficult truth to those involved. In selling our home, we consulted with others and prayed for what was right, but we also chose to keep our family out of the controversy. I put them through enough this last few months.
We make our choices, we set our course, and then we have to watch our wake from the boat pulling away and pray that the grace we have shown to others will be shown to us, if not in this life, then in the next.