Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Following In My Momma's Footsteps
(How I Became a Priest Like My Dad By Following My Mom)

I am a priest. So it my dad. In fact, I was born midway through his first semester of classes at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. So I shouldn't be surprised when people ask the inevitable question, "So you're following in your daddy's footsteps, huh?"

The answers, of course, is "I am."

I am, and I'm grateful. Daddy taught me the great privilege of praise and how to pay attention to the presence of the living, active God, in both broad strokes and detail. Some call this attention discernment; I call it noticing the beauty of God. The best part is, Daddy only taught me sometimes with words. Most of the time, I received the harder-to-come-by lessons born of apprenticeship and example. It's the difference between learning a first language and a second, years later.

Being my daddy's son sometimes leaves me feeling old, which is to say "well seasoned." I don't have all the answers - not by a long shot - but there are certain questions I've abandoned in favor of, what are for me, more life-giving ones. In short, I stopped caring about certain priestly conversations long before I became a priest. I large blame/thank my dad for this.

When I think of my dad's contributions to my understanding of the priesthood, I always remember two off-hand rules of thumb he passed along at no particular time: 1) always only have one point (still working on that one, Daddy), and 2) suppose the grieving, agnostic son of the disaffiliated and recently departed parent, unsure of how to proceed with liturgical plans for the funeral, hasn't ever imagined the process quite like you have, but he's grateful you have - even if he never puts it that way.

Even so, alongside my deep gratitude for my daddy's role in my vocation, I still itch with a mild irritation at the question about his footsteps. The reasons for this are two-fold, I think. The first reason is that the question sometimes feels like a discount to the uniqueness of my journey. I realize the narcissistic danger in making an idol of one's story, but it's simply not true that I am only a priest because my daddy is one. This truth leads me to itchy reason number two, namely that the fascination of friends and discernment committees at my father's vocation relative to my own means that no one has ever asked - relative to my vocation - about my mother. Momma. (She hates it when we call her 'mother.')  But the other day made me realize why I wish someone had asked me that question at some point along the way.

It was about a week ago, and I was thinking about Momma's pending return to the field of occupational therapy. Home health and nursing homes, mostly. Largely, but not exclusively, with the elderly. Momma was about to return to the OT world in which I grew up watching her thrive. She was returning after eight years away, owing to severe health complications caused by multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Momma's return marked yet another triumph in a last couple of years full of them, as healing has led to healing and new possibilities for flourishing have opened again. This has been a season of thanksgiving to God for new life, and it has been a joy to witness her journey. So I was thinking of Momma's return and returning myself to memories of the OT world of my childhood.

And that's when it hit me: Momma has been my subconscious and primary model for ministry all along; that is, from the beginning, I've been learning to be the kind of priest an occupational therapist would be.

The signs were there early: I spent high school career investigation days not at church (duh), but in  nursing homes. It was the kindly direction of an activities director there - and not at an off-the-rocker junior high youth group gathering - that first revealed for me the great joy of animal balloons twisted for others. It was there, in nursing homes, that I first learned to listen - as for whispered treasures - to the garbled speech of recently admitted stroke patients, convinced that the words' importance did not depend upon their clarity, and convinced that God was in the conversation. How often did Momma show me the possibilities born of compassion and connection, when the patient's eyes would suddenly grow wide, begin to sparkle, a smile threatening to form from the corner of her mouth, simply because she'd heard said back to her the thing she'd been trying for so long to say. She'd been heard. She'd been seen. She was in relationship and so, in a real sense, she was.

Momma taught me that occupational therapy was distinct - though not altogether separate - from speech and physical therapies because of its primary concern for empowering patients in every day occupations, tasks, simple jobs. Momma came alongside her patients so that, together, they could discover a new imagination - a new approach - for living ordinary life.

Admittedly, "occupations" in the OT sense can be modest, like washing one's hair. But the modesty of the occupations cements for me the connection I have come to recognize with my own work as a priest, which is really a long extension of my training at the hands of Mennonite economists.

Let me briefly explain...

I fell in with a rogue group of Mennonite economists back in college. For this I'll forever be grateful. One of them, a professor, took me under his wing and enrolled me in a larger project of his called "Business as Mission." Business as Mission ('BaM') sought to challenge the idea that certain professions were holy (clergy, teachers, nurses) while others were profane (chiefly, lawyers and bankers). To be sure, some careers require sacrifices clearly beyond the pale of faithful Christian discipleship, but it is not at all clear that many of the careers historically disparaged by Christians (and others) need automatically be on the list. In other words, even entrepreneurs can embody faith in their businesses - and far beyond tithing generously on the profits. My own work focused on micro-finance lending in Pakistan and the women some particular small businesses were empowering, effecting - as a happy side-effect - the reconciliation of Muslims and Christians in certain villages of that country.

At some point, I realized I wouldn't make my career in economics. God had called me to be a priest. I screwed up my courage and went to tell my supervising professor - the Mennonite champion of lay vocations - that I was called to be a priest. He stared at me for a minute or so, blankly. Then he smiled. "I can see that," he said. "You'll be a good priest," which struck me as an unnecessary and wonderfully generous thing for him to say. He meant it. "Jonathan," he added, "just don't let us lay folks off the hook. Keep reminding us that the life of faith is here to challenge all of us, that faithfulness requires imagination for all kinds of careers and every day life."

In my seven-plus years now of this adventure called priesthood, I don't go a day without remembering his charge and my promise to keep it. In some ways, I think campus ministry suits that promise best, coming alongside students so that, together, we might discover a new imagination - a new approach - for the occupations of daily living. Sounds familiar. Every day, invited into the lives of students with aspirations to be doctors, engineers, botanists, french lit professors, I stare into this immense void of pressures and possibilities, a surreal mix of hopes and hopelessness - in the common life of our community and in the particular life of each student - and I say with the help of the Gospel and the conviction and memory of all that has come before this moment, "Holiness can make a home here. It will take some imagination, but Christ is risen from the dead! Yes, even here, holiness will make her home."

In these moments, I'm all priest, happy traveler in my father's footsteps. But Momma knows I'm also still that little boy standing at his mother's elbow in a patient's modest living room - pre-HIPAA - watching unexpected possibilities make a home.

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