The readings this Sunday refer to the ‘soul destroying’ effects of being ‘rich’ but not ‘rich toward God’. This struck me as an interesting idea, particularly as a priest. I am reminded of the story from the Jungle Doctor’s Monkey Tales [http://www.christianfocus.com/samples/9781845506094_Sample.pdf]. Once there was a goat who wanted to be a lion. He went to the wise man in the forest and put his question. The wise man replied “If you want to be a lion, you must go where lions go, do what lions do and say what lions say and eat what lions eat.” So the goat gave up being a goat and followed the lions. He tried to ‘Say what lions say’ and let out with a great “Rooooooaaaaaarrrrrrrrr…. Hehehehe.”
I often think about being a priest like that. It is possible to go where priests go, and to do what priests do but if one is not really a priest, there will always be tell-tale signs of ones true self at the end when one tries to ‘say what priests say.’
It is possible to be a professional ‘clergy-person’ but this does not necessarily mean that on is a priest. There is a lot of the role of being a clergyman that one can learn. There is a lot about the structures of liturgy which, when conducted with care, will help those who participate connect with God. But there is something in the ‘genius’ of a person who is a priest, which will infuse the liturgy with their sense of priesthood, which adds to the process of connecting with God. This for me is the difference between being a priest and being a clergy-person.
This is why most of the money that we raise goes toward keeping body and soul together for the priest in a congregation. There is at least one person in the congregation who is freed up to live a representative life: a life that shows what it means to live ‘richly’ before God.
This is quite dangerous though, and ought not to be taken on by people lightly. It is a bit like the situation where people say ‘Look at those Christians! They take on the name Christian, but their lifestyle and habits during the week are not congruent with their claim!’ The same is true for priests. It is always the case that a person who is a priest will also have feet of clay and so, will betray their capacity to connect others with God from time to time. They will become charlatans, showing one face to the world, and being another to themselves and in private. Integrity becomes the watchword for priests. That is, that their inner and outer lives are ‘integrated’.
But this does not mean that they do not have struggles. Being able to bring their ‘not-yet-ness’ into the circle, and to make use of that is also part and parcel of living a life ‘rich toward God.’ It is a mistake to try to disguise this because the very act of trying to be perfect, leads to being a charlatan, and to being ‘dis-integrated.’ This is a big burden that is associated with being a public priestly person. It is easy, in the face of the danger of being a hypocrite, to back away from being a priest, to become a manager or some other kind of person, rather than do the thing that I have answered ‘Yes’ to, when the Bishop asked me ‘are you truly called to be a priest in the Church of God.’
But at the same time, a priest has to have something which adds value to life lived before God, given that that is what they are set free from ordinary work to do!
Members of congregations are not immune from these dangers either. It is pretty easy to shield one’s self from the question “What does it mean to live life toward God?” This sometimes comes out when people then shield themselves from their priest. The light side of ‘anti-clericalism’ is that charlatan priests are called out and shown up for what they are. The dark side of anti-clericalism is that members of congregations defend themselves against the question “What does it mean to live a life before God?”
So here is the trade off. Being a priest means that the way I do Church is the result of the given structures of the Eucharist, and my own personal ‘way of being a priest.’ I believe in the structure of the Eucharist as something that is promised by God to connect us with God’s own self. But my own ‘way of being’ as a priest is also part of how that ‘connection’ happens. If I am not happy or free in this regard, then the congregation does not want my kind of priest. That is fine because not every priest suits every context, but if it is the case, it ought to be said and the parties allowed to go their separate ways. How I am in Church is an integral part of showing forth what it means to live a life toward God. The members of the congregation are asked to trust that this is the case. What they get in return is an enhanced capacity to connect with God, according to the particular genius of the priest that they have. Congregations have a right to expect, though, that the person who bears the name ‘Priest’ can actually deliver on this identity. Otherwise everyone ought to just settle down to having worship structures and professional clergy.
I like this story. When king David was bringing up the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the Bible tells us that David was just clothed in a linen garment, and that he danced before the Lord with all his might. His wife, Michal saw him from a window, and despised him in her heart for such a show. He replied “It was not for you that I was dancing, but for the Lord.”
That is how I feel in Church. As a priest, I hope that my own hypocrisy is able to be worked on, so that others may be encouraged to do the same. I hope that the particular way of being a priest is able to help others connect up with God. I hope that I will be trusted as a priest to ‘do my thing’ and that in being trusted, you will be blessed.