Expansive Love in the Church: On Being a Dad and a Father, a Priest and a Parishioner

Expansive Love in the Church: On Being a Dad and a Father, a Priest and a Parishioner February 26, 2016

 

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Peanut butter smudges against the screen of my smartphone, and I simultaneously mumble a curse and a prayer of thanks that I had the commonsense to get a sturdy case for my phone.

Maybe it’s not the best way to handle the stress of my morning, but it’s 6:45 a.m., and I’m wiping peanut butter off my phone while I’m texting and organizing a mission project to respond to recent widespread weather damage in our area. The person on the other end of the texts is a busy professional. I know his day begins earlier than mine, and this is the time of day when he actually has time to do the thing he’s passionate about – help others and serve the church.

I’m a priest. This is what we do, and it’s a joy.

But I’m also a father and husband.

While I’m busy organizing this project, I’m also making peanut butter sandwiches for my two young children’s lunches. And refereeing the morning’s brotherly aggravations and typical protestations against brushing teeth and combing hair instead of building with Legos.

And, Jesus Christ, help me, how are they out of clean clothes again already?

Is this what Paul meant by pray without ceasing?

My spouse left the house hours ago, on a particularly brutal rotation in medical school. We won’t see her again until tomorrow night.

I am a bivocational priest, not that you’d know it. I am, for all intents and purposes, a stay-at-home dad and a priest. Most weeks, I do the shopping, the cleaning, the cooking, the laundry, the toilet-scrubbing, the children dressing, the homework monitoring, the lunch-packing, the splinter-extracting, the knee-bandaging, the litter box scooping, the dish washering, the kid picking-up and dropping-off.

And I work at a parish, part-time technically, but since when is being a priest really part-time. It’s difficult to be a part-time priest kind of like it’s difficult to be a part-time dad. As a recently ordained priest and a husband of a medical school student, I worry about how much I have to multi-task.

Perhaps that’s not quite accurate. I worry about how many times, because of this crisis or that, I’ve had to carry my children along with me while I work, hoping they won’t notice, but knowing they will, that I am breaking my promise to them and to myself. Promises I made as a stay-at-home dad when I first entered the ordination process.

I promised my children they would always come first. That I would be a father first and a priest second. Always.

But a funny thing happened after the bishop laid his hands on my head. Suddenly, everyone began to think of me as their father as well. And, I’m still working out how I feel about my children having to share their father in that way with so many others.

Last week, I offered counseling and pastoral care to a young person on the phone as I quickly scurried to turn on an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy, knowing I had just bought myself 30 minutes to listen actively, reflect their concern, and hopefully offer wisdom, comfort, or, at least, an understanding ear. When the conversation dragged on, I scrolled down to the next episode, clicked play, and felt the creeping parental guilt creep up my spine as I let the television babysit my children.

I know I am doing the person on the other end of the phone a disservice, myself a disservice, and, most heartbreakingly, my children a disservice.

So, I pray that love covers a multitude of sin even as I wonder if this is what love really, truly looks like.

I put my children in the shopping cart as I purchase supplies for a dinner event, for a workshop, for a lesson. They stay with me in cabins with youth groups. They wander in the background as I set up for service. I get frustrated with them when they swing along the altar railing, not because it’s wrong but because I’m terrified the Altar Guild will see their shoe prints on the freshly polished wood.

I deputize my son as an “assistant” to convince him to organize the chairs in the chapel in a circle. My boys scurry around the sanctuary, chasing and squealing, as I practice my sermon to empty pews.

On days when they are in school, I drop them off and arrive at work, realizing I have but five hours before I must pick them up, but need to squeeze in 8 hours of church work today and 7 hours of house work.

These struggles are not unique to me, to people who are ordained, but belong to anyone who is the primary caregiver for small children but must work for a living. I know I’m incredibly lucky to be at a parish that doesn’t mind and to have a boss who sees children as a blessing even when they interrupt a church staff meeting I’ve brought them to during a teacher workday at their school. Somehow there’s always one color of crayon missing, and that is the only color that will do.

The pace is unsustainable, being both a priest and father. But my heart belongs fully to both, and I’ve always believed love expands to the size that’s needed. If only time followed the same rule.

+++++

I wrote this two years ago, almost to the day, but I never published it.

It seemed a little whiny to be honest. But, in truth, it was how I felt at the time. I was an overwhelmed newly ordained priest who was still getting used to 60-year-old men calling me Father.

If I were honest, I still have days where I feel like my calling as a father and my calling as Father are like oil and water, always by nature seeking to divide.

But when I initially wrote it, I put my woe-is-me tale to paper in hopes of finding some thread of inspiration. I didn’t.

It turns out, I needed to learn a few things first.

That inspiration came a few weeks ago. It was a simple thing, really, but moment that was built quietly out of time, patience, and love.

At a recent parish retreat, as we started to settle in for group time, I tried to wave my son over to sit next to me in the empty chair, but he didn’t see me. In fact, he wasn’t even looking for me. Instead he had his eye on an empty seat next to one of my youth ministers who serves alongside me and often keeps my flighty mind in check. She’s an engineer by day, but she’s also a devoted and compassionate minister who always takes the time to talk with my son when he has to tag along to youth events. Over the past year, she has listened to him with keen and genuine interest about his latest Lego creations, his visions for new buildings, and whatever he latest passion was.

So, when everyone began gathering, he padded right over to her with no hesitation because  he knew he would be welcomed, appreciated, and valued at her side.

My son belonged.

My son was loved.

He knew it so fully that it never occurred to him to doubt it.

In all the times I had to take my children along to youth group, to staff meetings, to retreats, and community events, I always worried they would be viewed as the priest’s sons, the kids that were tolerated because there was no other choice.

What I didn’t really notice, as I fretted about perceptions of professionalism, male privilege, and whatever mischief my sons would create next, was that no one in the parish ever complained. Quite the opposite was true. My children weren’t tolerated. They were welcomed. They weren’t considered bothers. They belonged.

Somehow, over the course of this year, through these countless moments where they were treated as humans bearing God’s image by the people of my parish, they had internalized that message.

It wasn’t until I saw my son sit in that empty seat two rows away from me at our retreat that I internalized it too.

When I thought I was ministering to them and often feeling overwhelmed by it, they were slowly teaching me, through hundreds of small moments of love like this, exactly what it meant to be both a father and Father.

It meant that I was never expected to do it all alone.

It meant we would come alongside each other to build God’s kingdom.

It meant we are all in this together, that we all belonged.

It meant love expanded to include us all.

+++++

I wrote the above a year ago, almost to the day, but I never published it.

Our family moved away from this church, so I’m no longer working there.

For almost a year now, I’ve primarily been a parishioner in the pews not a working priest at the altar.

But it’s funny how the things I’ve worried about have remained the same. Worries about whether my children will be welcomed when they are noisy, when they wallow all over the irreplaceable centuries-old wooden pews, when they use their best stage-whisper in the middle of the ages-long prayers of the people about lightsaber battles or their urgent need to pee, when it seems like they can’t help but crinkle the world’s loudest sheet of paper or eat the crunchiest snack imaginable.

Parental Post-traumatic Pew Syndrome, I call it.

Inevitably, I feel a cascading rush of merciful relief and release when the deacon tells us to ‘Go in Peace to Love and Serve the Lord.’ All I want to do is escape to the car where the engine’s hum, like love, covers a multitude of sins. But I know I have to run the gauntlet of handshakes and small talk on my way out the door all while managing my children who are desperate to discharge their stored-up kinetic energy by any means necessary. And, of course, the first folks we have to speak to are the nice couple who sat quietly in front of us. The same people who surely felt at least half of the 37 kicks against the back of the pew from my son, despite my urgent protestations and pleadings.

I want to apologize, to humbly repent.

But I never really get the chance, because they are too busy welcoming my children as if they truly are welcome. They are asking them about school and their interests. They are inviting them to Sunday School, to go tubing in the snow, to become acolytes, to be a part of the body of Christ gathered there without the expectation to be anything other than two elementary school-aged kids.

And it hit me. That’s exactly how I’ve always treated children in parishes where I served. My kids have been formed the same way I’ve wanted the kids in the parishes where I’ve served to be formed. Time and again my kids have been formed by churches who have never expected them to be anything other than themselves.

And, true to form, they have stubbornly and faithfully refused to attend worship weighed down by the expectations of being perfect angels but have been freed by their experience of expansive love to exist in the pews as only themselves, confident they will be loved by those around them regardless of their flaws.

After all, each Sunday my children receive the bread from the plate, the wine from the cup, Jesus himself from the Altar. No questions asked.

Why, in God’s name, would they ever expect anything less than such expansive love from those who bear God’s name?

And why, in God’s name, would I?

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This post is brought to you by my generous patrons, including Debra Warwick-Sabino, the first priest who welcomed my children, Roseanna Goodman, Layla Barrela, Carren Sheldon, Kenny Pierce, Chris Wickersham, Randy, and many more. Please consider supporting my work by becoming a patron, too,  —at even just $1 a month— through Patreon. Thanks for reading. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for your support. It means more than you could know

Image Credit: “Among the Pews” by James Doepp/Used under Flickr Creative Commons Copyright

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