By Jody Howard
The ending of a year and beginning of another is a more liminal and porous transition than first imagined. We experience some certainty about the date, though different parts of the globe leave one year, month, or day, at different points from others. There is certainty. But only a sense of it. Perhaps you’ve had the sort of feeling, as you’ve watched the New Year’s Eve countdown or ball drop in different time zones around the world. Instantaneous communication means that it’s quite possible to watch people on the other side of the globe, or family members on the other side of the country and the FaceTime or Zoom screen, celebrate the coming of the new year while you remain ensconced in the old.
Historians know this feeling. One mentor of mine was fond of saying, “Late antiquity: it’s always later than you think.” Or there are the uses of the term long for the “long” centuries — periods of time that extend from one century into the beginning of another. Some of us who had occasion to look at family photos over Christmas may have noticed how the early nineties seemingly beg to be termed the “long 80s.”
There are many aspects of this time of year that could help us recognize the porous or murky reality, the multivalent nature, of things we think of as clear cut.
Sometimes this sense could be mundane and hardly worth noting — the moment of realization when you write the wrong year on a letter — at others the sense could be more encompassing. The pandemic seems to have only worsened this latter tendency. In our household, time seems to have dilated and contracted multiple times. Sometimes it has managed both simultaneously, in different arenas of life.
Over Christmas we visited my mother, and during one conversation my wife noted that she hadn’t had any Facebook memories pop up for Christmas 2020. I realized I hadn’t seen any either. The realization about why came to me as soon as she noted their absence, memories flooding back as she finished her statement, “…and then I remembered why.” The why was the 2020 Christmas Day bombing in Nashville. “Was that really only a little more than a year ago?” I thought, also thinking “Could it really be that long ago?” Sentiments brought to you by some mixture of the odd, shocking, and tragic nature of the event, and the realities of two years of pandemic life.
This points us to the essential thing as we look forward into 2022. The thing that people are reaching for through repetitive memes that hold out hope that there is reason to hope following a long December, to say nothing of a long two years, “there’s reason to believe, maybe this year will be better than the last.”
Upon what can we found such hope at a time when, as an article in the Washington Post put it on Christmas Eve, “Across the United States, an alarming number of people are lashing out in aggressive and often cruel ways in response to policies or behavior they dislike”?
I wish I could say that the angst behind these behaviors were limited to the outrageous instances seen on the news. But in reality, we’re all feeling the wear. Those who study the effects of extended trauma on our physiology tell us this shouldn’t be surprising. We simply weren’t made for extended use of the physiological resources that get us through crisis. This means that we’re feeling the wear — and showing it — in our homes, at work, between family members, friends, peers, co-workers, and yes between parishioners, and between parishioners and clergy.
I have not been in parish ministry during COVID, but working with parish clergy and lay leaders has shown me that there is intense pressure to get back to normal, or to find a new normal. Indeed, more recently I’ve seen and heard colleagues discuss the challenges of dealing with the pandemic, in late 2021 headed into 2022, and note that it’s even more challenging than during 2020 because we now have all the challenges of evaluation and reevaluation, the extra work taken on during the pandemic (Priests-cum-tech-support anyone?) coupled with the belief/expectation that in other ways the pandemic is over and there’s a return to something claiming the title of normalcy. I have felt this tension myself. And it’s exacerbated by the intense particularity of everyone’s situation. Everyone is making and must make their own calls about safety because it is impossible for one size to fit all.
Maybe the realization that everyone, every family unit, is in a particular situation and has to evaluate their decisions for themselves could provide some relief. Some setting of expectations for those who are in positions of planning for others, for communities. Maybe. But it’s not sufficient. The push-me-pull-me of parish decision making that exists in the best of times remains, with increased intensity, and drawing out greater and more intense passions.
The one, and most essential piece, of advice I can offer is to encourage you with the reality that encourages me. As we enter the new year, with so much weighing us down, I feel a more intense need than usual to focus on the person of Jesus, the grace of God revealed in him, and the promise of his total victory, still being realized. The reality of that already, and the anticipation of that not yet.
It is easy to be pulled into a pattern of judging ourselves by what we accomplish, or by that we can’t accomplish but others assume we can or should. In the church — even in one as allergic to evangelism as the Episcopal Church sometimes seems — there is a tendency to focus on numbers and other traditional barometers of success. For some it might be whether or not the fall bake sale happened. Others might be advocating for a springtime parish event that requires many volunteers — without anticipating their own availability to assist. And clergy — I know from my own experience, and from talking to many of you — you may be looking at the attendance week by week, and the pledge cards coming and find yourself discouraged when the numbers don’t meet your expectations, or anxious when it looks like difficult financial decisions will have to be made. As understandable as these desires and concerns may be — and they are understandable! We are called to live by a different set of standards, focused on fidelity, empowered by what Christ has already accomplished for us.
I know that, particularly when it comes to parishes on the edge of financial viability, this is easy to say and hard to do. I understand. I have experienced the uncertainty in my life before that can prompt one of two responses: a continued descent into doubt, anxiety, and fretfulness, or the moment when you look at your spouse and say “We’ll be okay, as long as we are together, whatever comes.” Or you look at your Wardens and say “It looks grim now, and we may have to make difficult decisions. But let’s give our concern, as much as we can, over to God, and prepare ourselves for those decisions, even while we pray and hope that the need will never come.”
For me, this overflowing grace of Christ was highlighted recently in the words of the carol “The Apple Tree.” It was used as an anthem at the funeral of the late Bishop William E. Sanders, and I was struck by its lyrics in a way I’d never been before. Perhaps it was the context of the liturgy for the Burial of the Dead, but several of the verses stood out. I share them below with some comments and thoughts:
The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green;
The trees of nature fruitless be,
Compared with Christ the Apple Tree.
His beauty doth all things excel,
By faith I know but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see,
In Jesus Christ the Apple tree.
The comparison of Christ with a fruit tree that is always green, and always bearing, especially in comparison with the “trees of nature” that “fruitless be,” stood out. I take this not as a criticism of nature, but of the act of putting inappropriate hope in nature alone. Nature is wonderful. Real apple trees are something to be thankful for — but they bear for a season, live, like us, for a time. If we want a Honeycrisp, we can go to the grocery store. If we want an heirloom variety, we can find an orchard. If we want the fruit that leads to eternal life, we must come to Jesus.
Indeed, as we hear in the second verse, if we search for our security in anything or any person, anything finite, we will ultimately be unsatisfied. In contrast, Christ’s beauty, beyond all things, is something that can be experienced, but never suitably described with human speech — nevertheless, we must try.
In seminary, our pastoral theology professor, the Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta, offered the reflection that pastoral ministry could be a lot like the end of Moses’s ministry. Not that we would be leading people out of the wilderness, but in the sense that most of us would likely toil in congregations without any broad recognition. Indeed, there was no guarantee that we might not till the soil faithfully for years, only to see limited signs of growth, even limited vibrance, only to have a successor — if we’re lucky — come to lead the congregation into a fruitful phase of its life.
I made a commitment to myself then, which I think I’ve largely kept, to take the majority of satisfaction not from the numbers of people in church (not that I didn’t notice), or from the number of items of the parish’s or my resume, but in individual interactions: the opportunities to baptize, an infant or an adult, the grace displayed when a family invites you to the bedside of a dying loved one, the opportunity to pray with people in moments of crisis, or to give thanks with them in moments of celebration. In my position now, even as I don’t work directly in a parish, I still take satisfaction primarily from interactions with individual colleagues, and with the lay leaders in parish and diocesan endeavors with whom I work.
I see that recognition, as well as recognition of the fleeting reality of earthly delights of other sorts, in this verse:
[Quote]For happiness I long have sought
And pleasure dearly I have bought;
I missed of all but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the Apple tree.[/End]
Regardless of the high or low ebbs of other measures, the opportunities mentioned above present themselves, by the grace of God, and are the essential things of ministry. And because God meets us first with grace in every circumstance, we can rest secure (though I’m not denying the effort to remember it!). We can set aside the anxieties prompted by other barometers, and be encouraged by the more common, less mercurial elements of parish life and Christian relationships, and the life of the church more broadly. Because it is these that are most closely rooted to our Lord’s mercy — which we are called to witness to precisely in these moments. It is the crux of ministry to be renewed by the very elements which call us to most directly witness to the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. The repetitive yet always new feeding of God’s people with God’s flesh, and finding ourselves in the never-failing moments that present us with the chance to share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
It may be that we become weary with the toil of faithful ministry, but often, I think, it is really all that surrounds and confounds the essential tasks of pastoral care that tire us out. The words of the carol, again, may speak to this sense:
I’m weary with my former toil –
Here I will sit and rest awhile,
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the Apple tree.
With great delight I’ll make my stay,
There’s none shall fright my soul away;
Among the sons of men I see
There’s none like Christ the Apple tree.
I’ll sit and eat this fruit divine,
It cheers my heart like spirit’al wine;
And now this fruit is sweet to me,
That grows on Christ the Apple tree.
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the Apple tree.
As we enter the new year with it’s uncertainties, and as we await the buds of spring, and pray for the return of parishioners who have yet to return, and strive to set aside the internalized voices of criticism for somehow not accomplishing more, let us rest in the knowledge that we are “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,” and therefore God has given us only one task: to see Jesus and receive God’s grace and mercy. We are naturally limited. That should not be a depressing realization. It simply means that when our own or others’ expectations drive us to somehow manifest fruit out of a soul that feels worn thin, parched, and dry, we can remember that this fruit is only God’s, we can remember who the tree of life is: “The tree of life my soul hath seen, Laden with fruit and always green.”