Monday, December 12, 2016

The hardest prayer

Many years ago when I was just a candidate for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church my ordination process hit a road block. I was one of several seminarians at my seminary who did not do as well on her GOE's as was expected. I no longer remember but I think I "failed" in two areas, and again, I don't remember what areas I failed in. I only remember that the COM in the diocese put my process on hold so they could do some remedial work with me. At the time it felt like a huge big deal. I was finished with seminary and had to move from the seminary housing but I couldn't get a job and had no idea what was going to happen when all was said and done. My family and I were in total limbo. It was frustrating and frightening. Some on the Standing Committee said that if a person couldn't sustain all seven areas then the person should not be ordained. My mentor, a gifted, wise priest, said that she too had failed in an area or two, and she thought that failing GOE's actually made one a better priest. I faced huge student loan debt and no guarantee that I'd be able to pay it off. I had kids who needed to be in school, but no idea where we'd live. The COM wanted me to take six months to do remedial work and then retake some exams. The odd thing is, what they tested me on was not areas I had "failed," but other areas that they felt could use an extra boost. I felt like I was just being managed, not formed.

Anyway, we moved away from the seminary and lived in almost free housing in an empty rectory of a church. I bought the books, I think there were NINE of them. Read them all, twice. Took notes upon notes and prepared to take two written exams. Thankfully these exams led to the COM deciding I was ready to be ordained and they granted me permission to move ahead. I was ordained to the transitional diaconate on December 28, 1999.

The biggest challenge of those six months was my anger at one of the members of the COM who was particularly vocal about my process. He was concerned that I was getting both an M.Div and an MSW. He felt that it was inappropriate for a priest to have a social work degree, that it would make me a risky priest. His concern was founded in his life experience of working with priests who tried to do therapy. The problem though is that those priests were not trained to do therapy. In contrast I was trained and knew enough to understand that I'd never enter into a therapeutic relationship with parishioners, I'd refer them out. But that wasn't really understood, all that he heard was his own reactive voice of fear and concern. He was a well respected priest in the diocese and on the COM, and of course the failed GOE's further supported others in agreeing to stop my process for some remedial work.

I remember feeling incredible angry at this man. Furious. And I could do nothing. I had to just take it and be quiet, accepting my fate, and do what I was told to do. It felt so humiliating, to be told what to do and to just have to take it, leaving me, my husband, and our kids in limbo for who knew how long. The power was all in their hands. Or so it seemed.

Then I realized there was something I could do. I could pray. I could pray for him.

Now that was the last thing I wanted to do. I did not want to say his name let alone invite him into my prayer life. But I did. I couldn't pray for anything specific for him or about him, I only held his name in my prayers every day. I forced myself to say his name and let God do the work.

At first saying his name, or thinking his name, stirred up anger, my prayers were fraught and tense. This went on for months. Every day. Angry praying. Until one day the anger was gone. For awhile my prayers had little emotion to them, just resigned acceptance. This was my life. A few months later I noticed another change, compassion. I began to feel compassion for this person. His life was a mess in many ways that had become public. It was sad and I felt sad for him. I know he was loved and respected by many and eventually I was able to hold that part of him along with the brokenness in him and what he had caused in me in my prayers as well.

The odd thing is, as stories like these often turn out, in the end I learned so much from that time. Not at all what the COM may have wanted me to learn - not some nitty gritty detail about liturgy or ethics  or what ever it was - no, what I learned was what it takes to move through challenges that feel deeply personal but are not. I learned about the power of prayer and the importance of being present with my feelings but not always acting on them, or at least not reacting to them. Acting on them through prayer and being thoughtful was crucial and has been a good skill for my time as a parish priest.

Now I face the biggest obstacle of my life, the presidency of you know who. Again, I can't even say his name without gagging. I have not been a fan of his, ever. I only watched a couple of episodes of "The Apprentice." I couldn't take his attitude and treatment of people and the way he intentionally created divisiveness amongst the cast. It was awful. And now, well, now he's doing it on a much larger scale, not some stupid reality television show but on the world stage.

My first response to this has been outrage. I am outraged that the electoral system in this country will allow him to get away with becoming POTUS. I am stunned that people have bought his rhetoric and BELIEVE that he will be good for them, restoring their lives to something better than its been, while failing to see that he only ever cares about himself. It's a mind fuck.

My second response, and I'm coming at this slowly, is to allow myself to pray for him. For this country and for all people, including him. I may not ever really be able to pray for him by name, but I do trust that God will know who I am lifting up. My prayer will be in part a trust that God will do God's part. My prayer will also be specific, please God use me to help this country be a safe and hopeful place for every one. Help me to do my part to bend the arc toward justice, to love God, love self, and love my neighbor. Help me to love ALL people, even those who I will not name. Not love, as in I agree with or support, but love with compassion because I can embrace the very broken place that makes that person be who he is, someone who inflicts his pain on every one around him. Help me to be a source of God's healing grace in the world.

Once again I trust that God will turn all things into good, somehow in God's way. This won't happen, however, if I, if we, sit passively by and expect God to do it without our help. What I have learned though is if I take action grounded in prayer then I stand a greater chance of doing God's work in the world. And doing it, not reactively, but responsively. With care and compassion for all.


altar ego said...

Beautifully written, Terri. Your COM story echoes mine in so many ways! Moving through anger toward compassion and love is such difficult, necessary work so that we can be that vessel of God for others. Our prayers may not change the world, but they can change us, and that is the only place to start.

Robin said...

What an incredible life experience and piece of writing.

I, too, and going to follow your example, with the one whose name I can barely choke out and with a couple of people in my family as well. Thank you for this.

Amy+ said...

Thank you for this, Terri. I, too, have had those people I had to name in prayer through gritted teeth and I am continually amazed when the anger turns to compassion - truly a miracle of God!

Mary Beth said...

Thank you for this, for your honesty and witness to the power of prayer. On that note, I have a section in my daily prayer list of people toward whom I hold resentments. The other day I got to a "first name, last initial" listing and honestly could not remember who the person was! (Of course, I remember now...) :)

I am praying for the person you mention every day. I also pray for his wife and young son. I fear for them, for the life I imagine that they have with him.

Katherine E. said...

Thank you, This is so helpful to me.

Hot Cup Lutheran said...

as always wise - oh so wise. hope your advent brings some peace

spookyrach said...

Ok, fine. I'm gonna try this. But I'm sending you the bill if I chip a tooth while trying to pray with my jaw clenched.

Terri said...

spookyrach, I spend a good amount of money at the chiro and massage therapist working on my jaw...prayers through clenched teeth is a reality in my life.

Homily for the Festive Eucharist at the closing of the Episcopal Women's Caucus

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