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WE'RE NOT CLIMBING JACOB'S LADDER
September 1, 2003
 
Today's eMo, especially appropriate for the American observance of Labor Day, is an excerpt from my latest book, "Some Things You Just Have to Live With: Musings on Middle Age." Its publisher is Morehouse. It is available now -- earlier than expected -- from the Geranium Farm's website, www.geraniumfarm.org. It will also be issued as an audio book, CD and cassette, available in a few weeks.

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"I would just be worried about your career," my friend said, genuinely concerned. "I mean, where would you go from there?"
I knew that he meant "where would I go that would be in an appropriately upward direction." He was talking about a position in which I was interested. I was thirty-one years old and just thinking about what might be next. The thing which would ordinarily be next for a young priest just finishing her first curacy - this was at a time when there weren't many hers, of any age, finishing any curacies, so it was a great honor to have a position at all - would be a small parish of her own and then a larger one until it was time to accept a call to a really large and wealthy one. There was clearly a ladder of success in the Church, and the rungs were clearly marked.
The position I was looking at was as a chaplain on the waterfront. That wasn't even a rung. On the waterfront? "That's a bad idea," another friend said. "You'll disappear there. Nobody will ever hear of you again. You need to keep up your visibility. You've got to think of the position after the position you take."
I do?
The position after the position I take?
That's the advice anyone would give anyone else in any profession. Somehow, though, it did not smell right to me in the context of priesthood. Is it really true of priests that they should always be looking down the line to the next plummy job? Are priests really supposed to be that strategic? Is it just a job, like any other job?
For that matter, is it really true of anyone? Should anyone be that strategic? Shouldn't I seek to be in the place in which I am using my gifts to the best of my ability right now, interested and interesting, curious and eager to learn and do right now - rather than peering down the tracks to see when the next train's coming?
"Portraits of Grief" was the title of the New York Times' capsule obituaries of all those who perished in the 9/11/01 disasters. So many people - in the buildings, but also in the planes. People who were at the top of their game and people just starting out. People who ordinarily wouldn't have been there that day at all. People who had always wanted to work in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon and finally did. People who were counting the days until retirement. People who traded bonds during the day and sang opera at night. People about to get married. People about to have babies. The job to which they went on the 11th of September was the last job they ever had.
There may be such a thing as being too strategic. Our hold on today is tenuous enough that we'd all better be sure we really love it, really live it, really consider it. Before it's gone.
I took the waterfront job.
My friend was right: I experienced an immediate loss of status. Nobody in the Church really knew what I did for a living. I was as marginal in the ecclesiastical world as the people I served were in the world of work. Nobody on the waterfront was there to go to church. They were there to do their jobs. The chapel was parenthetical. Many times I offered a Mass and nobody came.
Marginal. Except when a young man died on board a Swedish ship and his captain had to tell his parents it was from alcohol poisoning.
Or when the Lloyd Bermuda went down in a storm, with all hands.
Or when a man ended up in jail and his ship had to leave without him.
Or when another man was injured and the owner wouldn't take him to the hospital.
Or when two stowaways were run over by a truck on Corbin street.
Or when a man's mother died. Or a faraway woman's husband. And a trucker's little boy.
Or when somebody got shot in the kneecap during a strike. Just one guy. That's all it took. You know nobody else crossed the picket line after that.
You don't become a bishop by working on the waterfront. But you do become part of the world of work, that world by which most people define themselves as human beings. You do bring the body of Christ into the world to which Christ came and for which Christ died. You are part of its ambiguous dying and rising, again and again....
Here is what I think: the hardest, poorest places should have the best people. But they usually can't get them, because those folks are snapped up by rich places, and before long they can't afford to work anywhere but in a gilded cage. This is a pity. It endorses uncritically the world's questionable equation of money and power with worth, and passes it along to people preparing for ministry.
This was the philosophy that took me to St. Clement's. As a careful reader will have already noticed, it did presuppose that I was among those best, those worthies who should go to hard places and transform them. This had never been proven. It presupposed that I would be able to cope and even triumph over St. Clement's many obstacles.
You transformed the place, people told me when I left. Did I? Many things were better than when I came there. Some weren't. We didn't do everything we wanted to do. I didn't stay as long as I wanted to stay, but I stayed as long as I could.
Transformed? I still don't know. I know it transformed me. But I was still recognizable as myself. And St. Clement's was still St. Clement's....
God transforms things. We just show up and do our best. The fate of an institution probably doesn't hinge on whether we go there or not. We'll do as well as we can wherever we are. In the end, we'll want to have been fully awake and fully engaged wherever we found ourselves. So get there now, wherever it is. Be present to the actual doing of your work now, for its own sake, not for the sake of some work you might have in the someday future. Someday may be right now.
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