We often speak of being “off duty” when not at work. We speak of our work days and the double lives of “work me” and “real me”. For the presbyter, there is no such distinction. Or at least there shouldn’t be. The toxic effects of split roles in ministry are numerous. So for clergy, there is no punching of the clock. We are what we are.
There is no work life and home life, but life. And yet there are those things that, for everybody else are entirely separate. This makes those moments when the two collide so strange.
As a presbyter, I have presided over numerous baptisms. Each one has been an honor, particularly the daughter of a good friend. I am able to not only inhabit the office of priest, but be a tangible part of this family’s life. It is powerful stuff.
For the parents, there is the opportunity to be a part of something that can inspire awe in us: to witness transformation! To watch our children become something else, something more.
There are only a few places in which the collision between one’s experience as a parent collides with their pastoral role. Yesterday was one of those.
I was acutely aware of my strange discomfort with wanting this incredibly personal, familial moment of public consequence. I wanted to lift my son up and show him off. I wanted to celebrate this moment with my family, cracking jokes in the pew about the mess we made up front. I wanted to run down the aisle, high-fiving everybody that put their hands out. I wanted to be the proud dad of an incredible son.
I also wanted to be the present and comforting pastor to the other family, whose son I also baptized. I wanted to share the spotlight evenly. I wanted the congregation to bask in the moment and soak in the powerful symbols of water and blessing. I didn’t want this moment to be about me at all, but these two beautiful boys to whom we have vowed spiritual support.
This tension was already on my mind. On Saturday, we celebrated the life of a true saint in our community, John Jones. The nave was packed with people whose lives this one man had impacted. I invited his son, Kevin, to speak on behalf of the family. In many ways, it was like the remembrances we often here at memorial services, but something in this activated something in me. Kevin’s wonderful, earnest description of what his father showed him, what his father did to raise him up moved me to reflect on my relationship with my father, and what I would say about how he raised me.
And then I thought of the office and how presbyters have to split themselves (sort of) or perhaps the more accurate “multitask” these critical moments. I thought of how my father, as a presbyter, baptized both of his children, and then later officiated their weddings. How he led memorial services for his parents. That he has, through the most significant moments in his own life, been both pastor and father/son/husband. Both the office and the person. No wonder he tried to talk me into having someone else officiate at my wedding!
It was in that moment that a simultaneously happy and embarrassing thought entered my mind. I thought
Phew! At least there’s a tradition that when a priest dies, the bishop officiates! I can be a real person.
Then the morbidity of these thoughts pushed me elsewhere.
These are the elements of the season, however: life and death and new life. Baptism isn’t just a bath, but a kind of death: a celebration of the ending of one life and the beginning of another. In many ways, this is the under-girding force of all of our Sacraments. They are about the end of one thing and the beginning of something else. They are death to selfishness and rebirth in revolutionary grace.
For that reason alone, inhabiting the office of presbyter at all of these powerful moments is a shockingly humbling, yet empowering thing. Because none of it is about me except for my own experience within it. And that can be an offering to GOD and to the church. I am so very thankful for this and every opportunity I am given.