Tuesday, July 28, 2015

That Time I was Mistaken for a Mormon Priest...Twice
(Reclaiming Ordinary Symbols of Faith)

A few years ago, I made the decision to walk home for lunch during the season of Lent. I was serving a faith community outside of Corpus Christi, and I lived about a mile from the church; the roundtrip commute would take thirty minutes I figured, leaving another thirty minutes for lunch. Easy enough. I've written elsewhere about the intention and learnings of this Lenten exercise as spiritual practice. Today I am writing to tell you about a surprise discovery along the way.

The surprise came quickly, on the first day walking home, when a red sports car slowed to a crawl and came up alongside me. The passenger window came down and a man's voice called out to me from inside the car: "Hey!" He wait for me to stop. I stopped.

"Are you a Mormon minister? You know, a priest?"

I put my hands on my knees and leaned over to find the face of the man in the car, glad for the conversation but confused by the question. I realized I was wearing my collar. My mind began frantically scrolling through a mental rolodex of early morning conversations with my best friend from high school - a Mormon. Nope. No Mormon priests in there.

"No," I said. "I'm an Episcopal priest. We're a part of the Protestant tradition, but share a lot with Catholics, too. I work at the church over there." I pointed.

"Cool. Very cool. I could of sworn you were a Mormon priest!"

We exchanged pleasantries, said good bye, and the man drove off.

Quirky. Strange. An occasion to laugh. The I didn't think much about it, until two days later when it happened again, this time after lunch on the way back to church. A neighbor came out from his garage and asked the same question: "Are you a Mormon priest?" Weird.

That's when it hit me: by their steadfast practice, Mormons have been more successful claiming walking as a symbol of faith than Episcopalian clergy have been successful making the same of the collar. In these two men's minds - ordinary, workweek, lots of things going on minds - walking and religious person equalled "Mormon" faster than walking and collar equalled "any of the denominations that have collars or priests." Yikes.

I was visiting recently with a priest in Waco, who was sharing with me his congregation's desire to process, liturgically, and live and move, physically, more and more outside the walls of the building. "The church that walks!" he joked. I laughed and told my friend what a great thing that could be, and I told him this story.

As a campus minister, the level of connection I feel to the life of prayer and the people around me is positively correlated to the number of steps I walk on campus. 10,000 is the goal, seldom reached, but failing by a few thousand has never felt so good. Theologically, this goal represents the missional conviction that God is there, to be found, in the neighborhood. Practically, the goal works against the temptation to perfect ideas for ministry apart from the community into which God sends God's people.

And yet, it is not just the walking. It is the identification of faith with the most fundamental, ordinary, and simple parts of life, I think, that makes strangers think of Mormons when they think of walking. An ordinary act performed countless times for others. Like parents and diapers. Like single moms and second shifts. Like daily prayer and petition for the world's deep wounds. Like priest and Eucharist. Like hands on heads and healing.

Of course, Mormons don't go around just walking. They walk in order to talk, and they talk, largely, with the aim of giving you a Book of Mormon. There are plenty of things they probably think they're about that are more important, in their own minds, than the walking. But it's the walking folks remember.

I wonder how it is the same with me, with my church. What truth names the difference between what I think is the point of ministry and the thing that God actually plants in the heart of the faithful. I wonder how God is daily alive in the ordinary in ways I am tempted to miss or discount. The rudiments of bread, wine, water, oil. Or Dix's "take, bless, break, and give." The assembly as it gathers, listens, lifts, and leaves. Christ as he gathers, speaks, touches, sends. The currents of prayer and Scripture that orient us in and around the life of the baptized, whose center is Jesus, crucified and risen.

My suspicion is that those times when I insist on an importance beyond these rudiments serve mainly to name my vanity. And likewise in my faith community and the larger church. For it is in simple acts lived to God with others, for others, that acts make clear their need, if they are to be intelligible, for God - and so find the freedom to become symbols of faith, pointing to the living God whose promise is not to be except to be with us.

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