January 21, 2015

One Step In, One Step Out


Report of the Rector for 2014

It is possible to sum up the report below in seven words: I am the rector of Saint John’s.

This is the sixth time I have written a contribution for the Annual Report as the priest of the parish, but the first time I have been able to claim for myself the title of rector. I am, in fact, the eleventh rector of Saint John’s, if anyone is counting.

It is no small amazement that things would have unfolded in this way. The wisdom of the church is inclined strongly against calling as a rector someone who has previously been a member of a parish. There are many good reasons for this. Yet even so—here we are.

A long time ago, when I first was exploring a call to ministry—good heavens, twenty years ago now—I remember saying to the Commission on Ministry that I had as a kind of ideal outcome serving part-time in a small parish like Saint John’s, and working in the world in some role as well. I hardly ever imagined that this would actually come to pass at Saint John’s. This is, to be sure, a lesson in being careful what one wishes for….

Of course, in that moment I was not imagining that I would be the only clergy person in the place. That we have continued and in many respects revitalized our ministry has nothing to do with me, and is instead entirely a result of all of you engaging more deeply with God’s call to us in this place. It is the result of incredibly devoted staff members—Jeffrey, Kate, Edward, and especially Paula DiMauro (from whom all blessings flow)—taking on important aspects of this ministry we share. More specifically, it’s a result of the people of Saint John’s all together taking on a greater share of the work and witness of our whole ministry.

I know this is true, because I have watched it happen over the past five and a half years. I have watched as so many of us found new ways of supporting, strengthening, and celebrating the ministry of this community. Watching this has been an incredible privilege. Being part of it has been the source of the greatest spiritual growth of my own adult life.

We have come to see that, while we may not be wealthy or strong in some ways, we are deeply gifted in some very specific—and rare—ways. We are very good at giving people a place in which to understand, explore, and participate in community. We are very good at hospitality—a true Christian virtue. We are very, very good at bearing one another’s burdens and sorrows, and in celebrating one another’s joys and triumphs.

All of this is an expression of the unique set of gifts by which the Holy Spirit has equipped us to incarnate God’s invitation to the whole world. To many of us who have been around the place awhile, it sometimes seems as though there is nothing particularly interesting about this quality of our community; we have, in a sense, become accustomed to it. But it is something precious, and, again, rare—indeed, all too rare in our historical moment.

In the year ahead I hope we will continue to build on the good work of the years past in two specific ways: by taking one step in and one step out. Here is what I mean:

  • Each of us stands at in certain place with respect to our relationship to the people, the work, the ministry of Saint John’s. We make a choice about how much of ourselves to give—measured in terms of our time, our patience, our money, our trust, even our hopes. In a very real way, we make a cost/benefit calculation about how much we can be in—usually based on an assessment of how much we can afford to lose of any of these things.

But of course this is a community of faith, and we are called to live by faith—not by calculation, which is in itself something that refuses entirely to trust an outcome to an investment made by faith.

Few, if any, of us are called to completely hand over everything on faith to the community of the church. That is the hallmark of those called to the religious life; and their witness among us holds up a powerful example of the possibility of living entirely by faith.

But all of us can risk just one more step in—one more step deeper in giving of ourselves to this community. It is the easiest thing in the world to think ourselves into a firm conviction that we could not possibly give one bit more; but that is to doubt our own capacity for faith, and for relationship with God. You can measure it in any way you choose; what is certain is that all of us have one step more to make toward building this beloved community, and it is a lot easier to do when we do it together.

  • In the same way, each of us has a sense of how our private faith commitments fit into our public life. Whether you think you have a public life or not, believe me when I say you do—something our experience of social media makes clear all the time. Our relationships with friends, with co-workers, with colleagues, with neighbors—all of it and more adds up to our public life, the part of our lives in which we make a reputation for ourselves, and a set of relationships in which we create the bonds that make our lives fully human.

Each of us, to some extent or another, mediates our private commitment to the Christian faith with our public lives. For me, that is made much easier by virtue of wearing a clerical collar; when I wear it, people who don’t even know me expect me to sound, look, and act like a person with a commitment to Christ, and their expectations help me do it. A collar, in that sense, is a crutch.

All of us have to negotiate this private-public relationship for ourselves. None of us, probably, are called to stand out on the corner of Washington and Walnut Streets handing out tracts to passersby. But each one of us can find for ourselves the right next one step out—just one step out toward the world in witness to the love, acceptance, and affirmation of God as we have found it lived and witnessed here in this place.

I’m not saying we have to be evangelists; I know that is uncomfortable terrain. But I hope I may insist that none of us should ever be embarrassed at being part of this amazing, welcoming, embracing community. And the joy of that part of our private lives is a joy worth becoming public—worth sharing, and worth inviting others to.

How blessed we are to be part of this place. How blessed I am to be called to be part of it with you.

Gratefully and faithfully —