My father had a “life verse” which encapsulated his Christian experience and hope: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). He quoted it often, signed-off his letters with the reference, and even managed to incorporate it into his email address. Since his death, three years ago, it has become especially meaningful to me whenever I come across it in my reading.
Yesterday I had lunch with one of my parishioners who is an attorney with Baker & McKenzie, one of the world’s top law firms. He’s been a regular altar assistant, helping me with the intricacies of high church worship by applying to our services his keen mind, and his love for order and precision. As we worked our way through a light lunch he complimented me on my ability to relate to people: “You have a rare gift among clergy; most of them seem to think church people are as interested in theology as they are themselves. But you are in tune with where people are really at.”
I thanked him for his kind words; I’m into my last week of activity with this congregation so I’m harvesting a lot of latent goodwill as my final day approaches. But as I took another bite of my Ceasar salad I heard the Still Small Voice grinning within: “Well, done, Good and Faithful Servant. They simply will not listen to Reason – that’s why I sent you!”
In my final year of formal theological studies the college principal gave a talk where he mentioned that about 75% of his substantial Christmas card mailing went out to other clergy. “O Lord, have mercy! Keep me from such madness!” my mind screamed at the thought. And thankfully he has. Perhaps because of my 14 years of ministry preceding my ordination, I’ve just never been very enchanted with The Church in its institutional form (of whatever denominational flavor). There are just too many of its members who sincerely believe The Church, because of what it represents, necessarily operates in accordance with Christian values and ethics. It doesn’t. You only need to read a decent history of Western Civilization to appreciate the fact. (Or Saint Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth, if you prefer. And I’m convinced that those of us who bear the name of Christ today are just as proficient in the gross negligence of not living up to that name as our ancestors were.)
A few months ago I was filling in an online profile for Anglican clergy who are looking for other work. One of the optional pages was for a “Personal Ministry Statement”, where one could include a pithy declaration of purpose or vision, a life verse, or the like. In the end I left it blank, but briefly I was tempted to enter as my life verse, I Samuel 22:2, “And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became captain over them.”
That pretty much sums up my work with the church.