Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thirty Years of Thanks

Thirty years ago Tuesday I was ordained a priest, in the Chapel of Mount Calvary in Santa Barbara. I have been meditating on 30 years as a priest and what comes to me is a deep sense of gratitude for all who have been part of the ministry I was given then. A priest does eucharist. And since giving thanks is what eucharistia means, and one of the principal elements of giving thanks is anamnesis -- not forgetting -- I'm going to dedicate this entry to remembering people and places and institutions that have formed my ministry as a priest.

I was ordained by Wes Frensdorff, Bishop of Nevada. My father, Duncan McCoy, was one of my clerical presenters. They are gone now, as is Mount Calvary. I was endorsed for ordination by All Saints Episcopal Church, Las Vegas, which my father founded in 1960. Members of the parish made the journey to Santa Barbara to present me. Bill Clancey, who was my seminary (CDSP) field work supervisor at All Souls, Berkeley, preached. Bishop Dan Corrigan, a dear friend of the Mount Calvary community, was vested and seated next to Bishop Frensdorff. The master of ceremonies was Fr. Bob Worster, Rector of St. Mary's, Palms, in LA. The organist was Fred Hammond, then professor of music at UCLA. In attendance among the reverend clergy were Robert Hale, of the Camaldolese, and Basil Meeking, then Under-Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in Rome, later Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand, and a dear friend of the Corrigans. And so many others. It was a wonderful day.

Such a cloud of witnesses. The bishops I have served in an official relationship as a priest are, in more or less chronological order: Wes Frensdorff of Nevada; Robert Rusack, and Oliver Garver of Los Angeles; William Swing of California; Fred Borsch, Chet Talton, Bob Anderson and Jon Bruno, of Los Angeles; Dick Grein, Mark Sisk, Catherine Roskam and Don Taylor, of New York.

My first years as a priest, of course, were spent serving the OHC communities at Santa Barbara and Berkeley, and then later (now) West Park. The eucharistic ministry is foremost in our communities, of course, but I discovered the ministry of hearing confessions, especially at Mount Calvary, where I must have heard hundreds over the years. Retreat leading and preaching and relationships that have grown out of those encounters loom large, and scores of churches I was graced to be invited into. Years spent helping Greg Richards when he was Rector of All Saints, Beverly Hills, and the group of faithful praying women who gathered around Alice Smith in the corner of their elegant parish hall, are vivid to me.

My first parochial pastoral charge was Holy Family, Half Moon Bay, CA, who taught me a great deal in a few short months in 1992. Then from 1992 to 2001, St. Michael's, Anaheim, and from 2001 to 2008, St. Edward the Martyr in East Harlem. So many people from those congregations rise up in my mind, too many to name lest I forget even more. So many wonderful Christians giving their talents in vestries and altar guilds and Sunday Schools and youth groups and music programs and ministries to the community. I especially want to lift up the Feed The Hungry program at St. Michael's, run by some great saints of the Church, among them Chuck Henderson and Bill Miller, who fed a hot meal on the church china to the homeless and unfortunate every Monday without fail for years and years. Much of what St. Michael's did in the way of outreach was funded by the profits from the St. Michael's Thrift Shop, and Alyce Compton deserves to be remembered for years of patient (and sometimes impatient) labor.

Baptisms in all three places, of course, but numerically the most at St. Michael's, especially among the Hispanic congregation. My last year I believe we recorded 152 baptisms, not all baptized by me, of course. Frs. Santos Flores and Juan Barragán labored mightily to bring that large congregation into being, and deserve an honored place here. But baptisms are just the tip of the iceberg! Presentations, first communions, confirmations and quinceañeras, by the dozens, even the hundreds. The Anglo congregation had its baptisms and confirmations and weddings as well, but also a lot of funerals, and I discovered what a great moment a funeral is for families. Hispanic ministry is largely about celebrating life events, especially those of children. When I left St. Michael's in 2001, there were well over 2,000 people on the membership lists. It was one of the great adventures of my life.

I would never have thought that I would have much to do with police, but for five years I was one of the chaplains to the Anaheim Police Department, and what a joy that was. Joy mingled with sorrow, because so much of the work was getting up in the middle of the night to be with and comfort people in the midst of trauma, disaster and death. Kneeling in the middle of a major street with Hispanic road repair workers at 2 in the morning to say the prayers for their dead comrade, killed by a hit and run, probably drunk, driver. Sitting with a mother whose son had just hung himself in the enclosed porch of their house. Helping to organize and lead the funeral for our Chief at the Crystal Cathedral with thousands in attendance. Listening to small, quiet moments of self reflection by police, who are not always the most inward-directed people.

Being Dean of north Orange County brought regular fellowship with the clergy of that region of the Diocese of Los Angeles. And monthly meetings of the clergy support group offered insight and solidarity.

Then coming to New York City and discovering ministry in another community, as St. Edward's is largely African-American. The faithful Christians there, who kept the Church alive for decades before I arrived -- beginning right after World War II, when almost all the white middle class people left that part of the City, with worsening conditions in East Harlem as the years marched on, crime, drugs, young people in trouble, despair on every corner. Small churches who continue alive in the midst of such conditions are in some ways greater cathedrals of the spirit than much larger, better endowed places with marvelous programs, because there is often little more than faith to feed the fire, and year in and year out their faith and hard work keep the flame burning.

One of the joys of my ministry has been mentoring people who have started on the path to ordination. In Anaheim, Ruth Tomlinson and John Kloman; and in East Harlem, Peter Irvine, Mary Ogus, Elise Johnstone, Willie Smith, Christopher Pyles, Susan Greenwood, Antonio Checo, Ajung Sojwal, Rob Picken, Filomena Servellon, Dustin Trowbridge. Another joy has been collaboration with the secretaries, sextons and musicians of the three congregations. And four years of teaching church history to the students of the Hispanic Programa as an adjunct faculty member of the General Seminary brought much joy.

A large part of the ministry of St. Edward's, and therefore of its Rector, is its work with community organizations: The Yorkville Common Pantry, with its directors Jeff Ambers and then Carolann Johns; Interfaith Neighbors (alas, no more) and its director Eileen Lyons; and The Amsterdam Boys' Choir and its director James Backmon; the Saul Alinsky-based Industrial Areas Foundation in its shape-shifting local incarnation usually known as Upper Manhattan Together. And I must not forget the two rewrites of the YCP lease which involved generous and tireless work by Gerry Ross, our volunteer attorney.

Then of course there was the seemingly endless building of the front door, with our architect Kevin Lichten and the Landmarks Conservancy, as well as the still-ongoing fire and safety project, both managed by a wonderful layman in the parish, Angus Oborn and our irreplaceable project manager, Dick Muffoletto. Without them very little would have been accomplished on the building front.

And finally, and still, the House of the Redeemer, which claims my time but also my heart.

So many wonderful people. I'll probably keep adding to this.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Letter for Rowan Williams

Thanks to TitusOneNine, I just came across this wonderful Christmas letter from the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch to The Archbishop of Canterbury. It is full of joy, hope and good cheer and a particularly appropriate message for the ecclesial celebration of the powerless one we recognize as Son of God. One apt quote:

"Worldly power has gone out of the established church, and that is why so many of its adherents have fallen away. Thank goodness for that; churches never handle power well."

And in the wake of it, I want to thank Kendall Harmon for producing his marvelous blog!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Advent Thoughts

The Monastery is emerging today from our quarterly retreat -- three days in silence. I love these retreats. Everything is quiet, no guests except a few pious souls who slip in for the Divine Office, work pushed back to the minimum necessary to keep the place running. I am in charge of ringing the bells this week, and I enjoyed getting to Chapel early.

A verse from the Old Testament reading at Matins struck me this morning, Zechariah 7:13: "Just as when I called, they would not hear, so when they called, I would not hear, says the LORD of hosts." This oracle of God to the prophet is about the restoration of justice, kindness and mercy among the people of Israel. It is a condemnation of Israel's past behavior, which led God to scatter them among the nations.

Quite a lot of the readings for Advent are about judgment. The whole ministry of John the Baptist warns people of the wrath to come, and is the centerpiece of the Advent proclamation. I used to think the whole judgment day business was a culturally conditioned first century Palestinian preoccupation, a little embarrassing in our more enlightened times. The fierce urgency of the prophets (who centered much of their work, one way or the other, around the destruction and restoration of Jerusalem) and of the Baptist, and of Jesus himself, caused one in preaching to struggle to relate to our own less dramatic times. The end-of-the-worlders were other people, strange Christians on the fringes, cartoon figures.

But no longer. If you're not an end-of-the-worlder now, your liberal friends think you callous, uninformed, deeply suspect of having gone over to the Other Side. Because, isn't it obvious? The world is going to hell in a handbasket. Or at least in an SUV. The financial system almost crashed. The health system is about to crash. Global warming is upon us. To name the three most prominent scenarios of the moment. In each case our current government finds salvation in vastly increasing its own power to run things and a concurrent increase in the amount of money it can spend to do so. But what if these crises are not amenable to well-wishing folk manipulating the levers of power?

Because you did not listen to me, I will not listen to you, says the Lord.

In Zechariah's prophecy there is a direct link between our past behavior and what is to come. The iniquitous behavior of God's people in the past will bring about God's deafness to our pleas in our time of need. His instructions to us show what has been lacking: "Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil against one another." That we have not listened and acted as God wishes has gotten us into trouble and will be the cause of more trouble yet to come. Worse is on the way.

Except... read on. The next oracle is a promise that God will come and live with his people in Jerusalem again: "I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath. Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem." God cannot help himself. He loves his people so much. Tough love. Watch out for that kind of love. It makes demands.

Leaving aside the exegetical question of who, exactly, is Jerusalem here (is it the actual Jerusalem? is it the literal people of Israel? is it all God's people, including us perhaps? is it the world God so loved?), the line of action is clear: God expects his people (however defined) to listen and obey, and if they don't, there will be the consequence of non-action on his part. But eventually he will act to restore them.

So the Advent question of the moment might be, Have we listened to God? Have we acted? It would seem that we have not. Wastefulness, injustice, lack of concern for each other, greed, have led us to the precipice of our current problems. Will we be able to address them ourselves, as the political elite of the moment would have us believe we can?

What God calls for through the prophets is for his people (= us, presumably) to change their (our) hearts. The prophetic analysis would seem to be that bad behavior comes from not listening to God, and that God will not listen to us when we are in our untrue, unkind, unmerciful state. So we had better get our inner dispositions together and act on them. In fact, the prophet doesn't seem to think that God's people have what it takes to make this change on their own. And so, God will come to live among his people: God with us. No wonder this is an Advent lesson. Zechariah is pointing the way to the Incarnation, or so we Christians would say.

We have been careless and so we are in trouble. Since we did not listen to God, God is not going to listen to us. Worse is on the way. But God will not leave us alone. Is our salvation in TARPs, in Copenhagen, in a 2074 page Senate bill morphing every minute and which Harry Reid won't let the public see, at least in today's headlines? Are these the societal equivalent of change of heart, or might we view them from another perspective? Have the dispositions in peoples' hearts that brought these problems about changed? If not, how effective can bureaucratic action be?

And anyway, can public action ever measure up? If ears do not listen and hearts are unchanged, what do such actions matter? Will they not themselves become occasions of more wastefulness, injustice, lack of concern for each other, greed? And with unchanged hearts, will we be ready for God to come and dwell among us? Will that not be judgment itself if we are not prepared?

God will not leave us alone. Advent comfort.