I have been reflecting on friends and notables that over the years have fallen from grace, or fallen into notable destruction, were whacked down by those who were clearing the church of troublemakers, were not elected to this or that office, or just plain went up in flames.
Within five years of graduating from seminary two of my fellow students were gone: one deposed for believing that what was developing as liberation theology in the late 60's really did apply to him in Colombia, the other inhibited for living out personal liberation and alternative ministry and life-style (what we would now term "manner of life"). Both were troublesome to the church and both perhaps were troubled. Both went. Neither have ever left me. They are with me daily.
When they fell in the forest there was a sound, and some of us heard it. The falling of these priests was accompanied by a great rustling of leaves, cracking branches and scurrying small creatures, but over time the forest of people I know in ordained ministry continued to thrive and mostly to forget the fallen. And yet the fallen trees have become nutrients for the ground and the remaining trees. We are all fed by the witness not only of those who continue but by those who have fallen, and by the sinners as well as the saints.
Over the years there have been others who have fallen in the forest of the ordained, people who have in one way or another been very influential in my life and ministry.
For ten years I was in campus ministry, and for five more I coordinated higher education ministry on a church wide level. In that time I saw and heard and felt the collapse of a number of campus ministers. So many people in campus ministry fell down or out that Dick Bolles, working at the time with United Ministries in Higher Education, wrote a first version of What Color is Your Parachute? in order to provide help for the fallen. What Color is Your Parachute became and remains a highly informative and original presentation of strategies for recasting talents and abilities for career and joy change has been a life saver for clergy chopped down or whose careers vanished. It began from a simple pastoral observation: there is life after the death of career even if the now out of work or vocation clergy person doesn't know it. Although it seems as if everything has come to an end, there is life after job loss, career changing loss of license (in the case of deposition), burn out, or simply the people saying "no" to what was thought to be a vocational "yes" from God.
In working with overseas partners and mission personnel in a variety of capacities, I have known bishops and priests who have been found wanting or went wanting. Some got in trouble with relationships, some with alcohol, some financially. Some simply got lost in burnout in foreign places and didn't know how to phone home. When they fell their sound carried as well, but again life in the forest continued without much long term notice.
In the latter part of my ministry I have been primarily involved in parish life. There too there are trees falling. Those of my friends who fall these days are sometimes those who have become rootless. They are wonderful people no longer grounded, no longer able to connect with the vows they made. They lost their way, or rather they forgot how to find it again. Some of course succumb to the "normal" sins of power. It continues into the present.
Last week I received notice that a friend had been deposed. He submitted voluntarily to judgment and there seems no real disagreement that there was a serious shortfall in his judgment and behavior. When he fell the sound carried. Another priest I know is undergoing complex issues of recovery from surgery. He registered at the hospital as a Jewish -christian -pagan, thereby guaranteeing that no clergy would visit him at all. But his registration is true. He has moved on and life got spiritually complex. What had been a vocation is now one element among many in a longer strand of complex weavings in his life.
We are an incarnational people, believing as we do that in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and that if it is true for Jesus, it is possible for us also, not by virtue of our own goodness but God's grace and goodness. At the same time we know just how hard it is to understand how God's presence in us can work out given our propensity to fall crashing to the ground in the forest. It is true for all Christians: we participate in the fullness of God's presence in humankind and at the same time crash badly without much of a sense of a way back by way of confession, amendment of life and reconciliation.
Clergy, I think, are in a particularly tough spot. We are nurtured to stand tall in the forest of believers and to be well grounded, with strong roots and solid bearing. When it turns out that the tree of our life had rotted out, or wasn't nourished well, when we chose unwisely or with self at the center, the fall is great and loud is the sound thereof. The vocational death of the pastor, be it by way of misuse of power or privilege, dishonesty in faith or simply by faith underused is felt at first as a matter of great concern. Rather rapidly, however, we turn away. The whole work of confession, amendment of life and reconciliation seems too difficult. We don't know what to do with those who fall, but have not died. So we too easily decide that the crash we heard was the death crash, and that the person who fell has indeed died. And so those who fall become dead to us.
There is a sadness about all this that runs deep. They are not, after all, dead. They are alive and continue to be among the baptized and repentant or not still God's beloved. Having been given the place and space in which to be a pastor, it is no wonder that their fall was noticed. But because it is not they alone, but all of us, who are the beloved community, their fall is not the end. Life for most of us goes on without much more than a momentary interruption.
Still I find myself wanting to give thanks for the priest who went 'round the bend, or who went on a bender, or whose manner of life was a scandal, or who isolated himself from the community, or who did terrible things with the power given by virtue of role, or who became a bishop and became righteous in his rigor and got deposed, or who took herself too seriously as a person of spiritual independence, or who thought out of the box more than was possible. Perhaps even in their miserable sinner-ly-ness or confusion of life they too have played their part. They missed the mark and in their missing we all learn better aim. They in their sin, and you in yours and me in mine, are all a part of the wonder of God's willingness to be one of us and among us and with us and for us. We are indeed unworthy, and even the whole of creation is unworthy, but none-the-less God is with us.
I suppose I am in mourning for those who have fallen, some of whom I have loved greatly, some of whom I knew only briefly. Perhaps we should say Kaddish, but then we would have to find 10 to say it with us. And of course some would say we are being pluralistic or whatever.
Still we can read the words:
Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
And having said Kaddish, we also can say that we know that there is life again, even for those who fall down as if dead, and that God is never finished with us. We are, after all, an incarnational people.