Remembering why I loved Tertiary Chaplaincy

For most of the 1990s I found a niche as a layman serving as a 

Resident Minister in a student dormitory and (rather surprising) as an occasional teacher and adjunct faculty member in the College of Professional Studies at the Jesuit led University of San Francisco, as well as the Episcopal Chaplain at San Francisco State University.  I also taught creative writing for several summer sessions at Sacred Heart/Cathedral Preparatory School and facilitated a monthly group spiritual direction gatherings for the Episcopal School for Deacons; which offered a Bachelors of Divinity degree in a part-time format for non-transitional deacons. I quickly fell in love with the work of tertiary chaplaincy (which has been described as both as the creative edge and the lunatic fringe of ministry) and discovered I liked teaching too. During those years I dated a bit, explored the rich and complex communities of queer and creative people in the centre of San Francisco, kept busy enough, happy enough, connected enough, moderately fruitful but primarily single.

At the beginning of every academic year I would meet with the new and returning students in the dormitory and give a little speech something like this: 

“You need to know I have no power in this place,” I would say, “I don’t  hand out a syllabus or course description, I don’t write evaluations or recommendations, and I don’t end up our time together by giving you a grade — although I’m available as a resource when you need to want to talk out some new ideas for a project or a paper, If asked nicely I can do proofreading or papers and, if you like, give feedback too. 

I’m a seminary trained Anglican who’s learned a lot from the Jesuits and I’m a Christian minister who gets strength and joy from that community — I guess my primary aim is not to convert anyone to anything except an increased joy in everyday living. If you’re interested I love talking faith, theology and religion, but I also love discussing politics, movies, literature, life in general. My main focus with you is to be  a dependable resource, on living and learning in community, keeping both sane and social, and enjoying some of the great places to eat, watch and walk in San Francisco. I’ll offer some walking tours of the City later this semester. But my main aim here is to be for you as a safe place in a dangerous journey,”

There would be a silence after that, and some of the students would look away and never speak again. Others would go on to say hello, be polite, and maybe let a relationship grow over time.  But a few, some, of those present would start to explore with me the places where an open-ended open-hearted conversation held in confidence and great respect might lead.

So I had students coming to talk to me about sex before marriage, about cheating on final exams, about the deaths of grandmothers at odd times. I had students coming to me to talk about why they were studying to be accountants or lawyers when they wanted to play music or serve coffee for a few years following graduation. I had students coming to me because they were so happy they had to tell someone, or they were so scared and lonely and they didn’t want to be alone with that. And I tried to honour everybody because it all mattered.

So I offered a few walking toursof San Francisco, and weekly noontime meditation group for students at SFSU and regular morning meditations meeting in my dormitory rooms at USF where we would finish by sharing fresh fruit and warm bagels.  I took some chances when I started a program at 10pm on Wednesday nights after the library closed called “God Meets Monty Python.” Snacks were served and we’d watch an episode of the television show and I’d follow that with a “sermon”  based on the theological values shown by the show. During seminary I had occasionally tried a theological-comedy routine and here was a  chance to live it out! Occasionally it felt like I was going down in flames, but I usually rose again which was part of the fun and led to more freedom, deeper conversations, better relationships with students and staff. 

And I worked out with students, faculty and staff at the weight room and pool at The Koret Health and Recreation Center at USF and audited a class on World Religions with Jacob Needleman at SFSU. I hung around our coffee house there, and around the dorm, dining commons and library at USF. Later a student at one campus looked across the table at me and said, “I know what you do!” When I asked what he meant, he replied, “It’s creative loitering; you hang around and things happen.” I’ve never had such a compliment on my ministry; who could ask for anything more?

One morning I was in a coffee-house 

where a graduate student I just met told me he “didn’t believe all this religious stuff.” He went on to say he would never allow himself to enter a situation where he, (1) “didn’t know all the facts,” and (2) “didn’t have a sense of the eventual outcomes.” I waited for a second coffee while he explained to me that every religious dynamic he could see appeared stupid, senseless, and lacking in basic elements of self-care and self-respect. He concluded by saying that from where he was standing, organised religion appeared to be a deeply toxic activity.

I was impressed he was willing to share this with me and told him that. I also said I had likely seen, in my own relationships with a wide variety of religions, more incidents of deception, dysfunction, and just plain flagrant evil than he could ever imagine. But, I also said, in spite of all the history and hypocrisy I witnessed, sometimes at very close range, my primary experience over the years had been participating in a sequence of wide-ranging fertile relationships with people of genuine value, compassion and love. And that was what kept me in the neighbourhood.

Then I asked him how his own love life was going. He laughed and allowed that it could be better, and wondered why I put that particular question to him. I said that in my own experience, most fruitful relationships and many functional religious lives were less like mastering a law code and more like an ongoing relationship or marriage, a sort of dancing rhythm of give and take, a kind of intentionally unfinished meandering while keeping an respectful eye out for certain key landmarks that might be met on the way. 

For while relationships and religion, like discipleship and dances of any kind, sometimes involve following drawn out steps and prescribed directions in formal patterns, my own experience mores often led to memorable moments of moving off the map in an improvised manner. All this while moving with the oft-repeated rhythms  found in the recurring stuff of life: birth, death, beginnings, endings, getting dirty, washing up, getting lost and found again. And again and again and again. 

And my sense was that we can learn to lean into that possibility, discovering both a discipline and a flexible focus in following the chance that compassion is in the centre of everything. This can enhance a certain quality of clarity, balance and focus: a wide open gaze in facing both predicaments and promises, open to the best and worst, the gifts and graces of every given situation as it comes into view. 

A committed life of discipleship can lead to that kind of freedom. For if the reality of love is in the centre of the wide map of Christian writings and traditions (as so many spiritual traditions tell us), than that love can be found anywhere. It can be discerned in each event of our lives, in good times and bad, even in those dangerous opportunities that meet us unexpectedly. “But it not an easy way,” I told him. “Love can leave scars that can lead you on, and it can hurt, but I am still betting my life in that direction.” 

I am still surprised that faith can so often become most real in the context of an interruption, but it’s so often the case. I remember years before when I was getting ready to begin my Master’s degree and was notified I wouldn’t receive my bachelor’s degree that semester. I had failed to pass one class, and it hurt terribly. I went to see a professor I had been hoping to work with and told him about my failure. In our hour together he touched three topics that stayed with me a long time: the recommendation of a therapist who would change my life: the advice that sometimes you can just do the easiest thing and it’ll turn out all right, and, almost as an aside, a theological quote on the nature of the sacraments. He said, “We know the Bread on the altar is holy because all bread is holy, but we only know that all bread is holy because we know the bread on the altar is holy.” At the end of the meeting we prayed together and shook hands and I walked outside and  the world was changed.

We had been talking faith, religion, sacraments; Christ’s body and blood, baptism, blessings along with Unction, Marriage, Penance and Holy Orders. But as I walked away I knew this template was sparking up the middle of the daily drab and wondrous world, full of food and drink and water and oil and hands and heart, with all the aspects of tuning up and turning ‘round and life and death and much more than that. It felt good but was not easy: like somehow stretching out to grasp foreground and background, both here and there. It was an instant glimpse of all the eternal evanescent existence so easily overlooked and still full in your face in every direction and every moment and always beyond description and belief. And sometimes I still wake up and it’s like the world just got born again and it’s all good. 

For I was finding, over and over again, that true religion so often comes in the stories we share, the risks we learn to take to learn with one another, the times when we tell our incomplete tales and allow a new ending to begin. Then bread becomes body and wine turns to blood and the whole breathing world catches fire again. For me it comes when sharing the old stories and letting them become new worlds. That’s where the Bible makes sense for me, that’s where the dance so often happens. 

To go back to the earliest sources, 

it looks like Jesus’ most popular ways of connecting with people come in moments of healing, times spent sharing food as well as the intentional action of sharing stories. Most of his stories fit into the category of parables. Over the centuries the definition of parable has been degraded to the category of edifying stories that warm your heart and settle your certainties; but in the original context they pack more punch. Most of Jesus’s stories carry barbs to surprise, awaken, turn you around, leave you wide-eyed and open to see where you are (or are not) right now — and even who you might be from here on out. So they’re more like a riddle, a puzzle or even a koan; which my dictionary defines as, “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.”

The conversations with the guy in the coffee house, some of the pseudo-sermons following Monty Python, meetings with other students and staff after oranges and bagels, after a workout at the gym or when the library closed, were all helping me realise that most of the stories Jesus tells serve as templates for transformation.  Like seriously funny jokes designed to provoke an explosive laugh, these face to face encounters both renew and reweave the content and context of the present moment and the future promise.

One theologian, Bernard Lonergan, called humankind “the self-transcending animal”,  and I wonder if that self-transcending comes most clearly in these face-to-face encounters leading to renewal, recreation, repentance, even something like resurrection. One way to see the early written records is as primary evidence leading the conversation further to open our eyes to larger life.  Each moment in time containing an opportunity for Scripture, a Word of Love, to be re-birthed,  renewed and revised in the parables waiting in every unique possibility. any present moment.

Years have gone by and I still think of the guy at the coffee house, the students sharing bagels and oranges in the morning. Lots of laughter and some tears, sharing joy and tension too. Chaplaincy was offering me the privilege of living together in the face of love. Seminary had changed and opened my mind and heart and life in so many ways, help me finally grow up. The task of tertiary ministry and the work following was to take what I had learned  and share it in the vocabulary and syntax of daily life at a busy University. Those early years were opening me to fall in love with the work of theology in a different way.

Thinking back I remember a great conversation with a chaplaincy staff member who, while we were talking, took some yarn and, weaving it between her hands, suddenly opened a cats cradle. I had never seen that before; but in those years I realise I was learning to weave something similar, a new exercise in devotion and joy, somehow opening a connection between tensions and differing directions that stretched out to be a new and vital pattern of living reconciliation. 

Somewhere St. Augustine writes that,“God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” But he also prays, “Not as I think you are, but as you know yourself to be.” And the places amidst these two extremities is where the opening comes in the life of creative discipleship. Keeping the tension between the two sides, allowing room to be challenged and encouraged at the same time. Both relaxed and ready in that tentative and dynamic place, without making it too busy or too businesslike; an ongoing exercise that changes for us in the same way as it changes us. 

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