By Greg Syler
“Are you getting any response to this program?” our parish administrator asked me the other day, referring to an offer we’ve been advertising in the weekly bulletin for weeks. I hadn’t heard a peep. At the same time, I realized, my email inbox is clogged, messages are waiting to be returned, and there are messages for which I’m awaiting a return. The to-do list is long, and calls have been made, and committee meetings have been arranged weeks in advance. But all in all not much is going on. That’s when it hit me: It’s summer.
You would think the blinding heat, or deliciously ripe local produce, or the absence of our Sunday regulars – and their pew replacement, the summer renters – would have tipped me off to the awareness of this seasonal shift earlier than mid-July. Or my own recent trips away to see family and friends or the fact that I’ve already given up the black wool trousers for a light cotton suit should have turned me on to the fact that we’re in a different season. It is summer, and we’re having lemonade on the lawn, not coffee hour inside; still others are out on the water, and at cookouts, and living pretty much in their sailboats or swimming pools. It is summer.
It’s been said that one of the principles of church growth is to not slow down programming during the summer, so as to teach people not to give up church during these glorious months of play. We all know churches who do different things in the summer months – change service times, combine services, suspend Sunday School, or in some cases cease corporate Sunday worship altogether. Whether those ideas are good or bad is, for me, up to someone else and, at the very least, up to that local congregation.
I’m just not sure that people are coming to our churches for our great and notable programs. At the same time I realized that my email inbox was full and that our parish administrator was not hearing a peep from anyone about our next great idea, I remembered how my Senior Warden has been urging me to get on his boat and go fishing, and that another family has invited my daughter and me untold times for dinner and swimming in their pool, and that I still haven’t gone kayaking with that other couple.
I remembered all the times in, say, November or February when so-and-so would ask me to go out to brunch following coffee hour or when I was invited to that family reunion and I wondered why I had turned down so many offers of genuine kindness. True, the job of a parish priest is sometimes ill-defined and the life is altogether busy and demanding – certainly so in the months of the so-called “program year”. But the idea of the Anglican priesthood, at least as I’ve come to understand it, centers on a robust theology of the Incarnation: the parish priest must be accessible, fully human, engaged, yes, embedded in a local community so as to mediate (not represent) Christ, who chose to live among us and, indeed, as one of us.
I’ve been having a wonderful exercise of my life and vocation this summer. I’ve gone swimming, sat on the edges of piers and drank wine, kayaked up an idyllic marsh-land creek to see a heron rookery, gone fishing, sat at dining room tables and on porches, headed over to the local restaurant to celebrate a birthday, and went to brunch at the local marina. All of this, of course, could be called work, but it’s so much more than that cheapened term – it’s a vocation, a lifestyle, an exercise of who we all are called to be. There will be plenty of paperwork and email ahead, and that time will come sooner than even I realize. In all of our lives, whether your vocation is a priest or an educator or a military contractor or a parent, there will be seasons of demands and production. And there will also be times of letting go, of enjoyment and delight. “To everything there is a season,” the wisdom of the scripture teaches.
It’s also more than a seasonal shift, much more. As often as I have expected and, unwittingly, demanded that people show up more regularly to the place where I live and work, I’ve had the opportunity to see the places where they, too, find joy and make meaning in their lives – their kitchens and boats, their decks and piers, their garages and favorite restaurants. We get some awful tunnel vision in the parish, and fret about average Sunday attendance and how many students are enrolled in Sunday School. It’s been healthy, for me, to walk out of the office and leave behind the familiar and comfortable rhythms of the sacristy and chancel. There is a great wealth of meaning beyond the walls we’ve constructed; God’s grandeur is robust in all of His creation.
Even Jesus seemed to recognize the need for this balance. It’s probably true that we most often think of Jesus as being out and about, a nomadic Rabbi who reminded his followers that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Mt.8:20). In recent weeks, the lectionary has led us through Matthew’s thirteenth chapter – the parable chapter – in which Jesus’ notoriety has become so great he has to go and stand on a boat in order for the crowd to amass on the beach and hear him. But Jesus also knew when to step back and recharge. Not as strikingly clear in Matthew 13, we see Jesus going in and out of “the house”(vv.1,36), presumably the place where only he and his select few gathered. Luke, in his gospel, teaches us that Jesus punctuated certain periods of his life and ministry by intentionally going away by himself to pray. Even as popular and public a figure as Jesus still understood the need for balance between programming and solitude, between time spent with the throngs and meaning gained by being with the inner circle.
It does seem to come down to balance. Congregations who are uncertain about their future will sometimes pit one good against another good, say, make outreach ministries the enemy of parish fellowship. Does charity begin at home, as some might argue? Or is there no such thing as charity without social justice? This is a false argument, of course, and it will get a Christian community nowhere but one whopping fight. Instead, balance. If we have stayed in “the house” too long, get out and meet the people where they are. God is there, too. God himself did precisely that, and we name that mystery Incarnation. If we are out of “the house” too often, get back and re-center. Our Creator did that, as well, and we celebrate that and call it Sabbath.
Greg Syler is the rector of St. George's Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland.