My wife and I live in a nearly two-century-old farmhouse in Basse-Normandie. We have a stable, hangar and henhouse, as well as another old building that is badly in need of repair. I am not without rural experience, for my early years were spent in the countryside and my family had a farm in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. So it’s one of those life-come-full-circle experiences…except that I am considerably older and yes, weaker, than I was 40-50 years ago. But hard work, digging the soil, building something with one’s own hands, is honest, satisfying work.
As I worked around our property today—thus my need for a hot bath!—I mused about my 40+ years of ministry. Much of it was not ‘honest, satisfying work’—and it seemed at a remove from reality. Here’s what I mean: The biggest mistake I made going I to parish ministry as a profession, was that I thought that my parishioners/congregations would be seekers after the truth—i.e. ready for the honest, hard, but satisfying, work of faith. Seeking the truth about themselves, society, their relationships, etc. Was I ever wrong! The institutional church is where you go for the imitation of seeking truth and serving God. Or, as a Catholic colleague put it: “Pray, pay and (perhaps) obey”!
Now I hasten to add that I spent my first seven years of ministry as a prison chaplain. It was, in fact, honest, satisfying work. It was real. Facades and platitudes were chewed up and spat out by inmates. Hell, they had nothing to do but study human behaviour day after day. They could spot phoney a mile away. You only dared come as who you were. In that regard it was refreshing! And there’s the rub with parish ministry. People dress in their ‘Sunday best’ precisely because they want to look good—better than they actually are 7 days minus an hour or so each week. Most do not attend services to do the hard work of looking in faith’s mirror, to grow and change, to reflect about the gap between appearance and reality or even to confess their failings—because the “Good News” really is about love and forgiveness. Churches—for the most part—are not hospitals for sinners, but rather retirements homes for phoney saints. And I am truly sorry and repent for the years in which I helped prop up that institution. But I thank God that I have had the time to reflect and change over the last 20 years; to focus my energy and gifts on issues and places in society which really matter. And I thank God that Chris and I are in this wonderful place in France, surrounded by farmers, mechanics and artisans, who produce food, repair tractors, refurbish houses (like ours!) and who accept me as ‘Jack’—purely and simply, for that is who God made me to be. And that is my gift to the world.