From the Psalter:
As for me, I will live with integrity;
redeem me, O Lord, and have pity on me.
My foot stands on level ground;
in the full assembly I will bless the Lord.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 26:11-12 (BCP Version) – July 16, 2013.)
Last week, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published the results of a survey testing the esteem in which Americans hold members of ten professions.
Respondents where asked say to what extent each group contributes to the well-being of American society: the possible responses ranged from “a lot” to “not at all.”
The professions were then ranked by the percentage of respondents who said they contributed “a lot” to our societal welfare. Topping the list were members of the military; at the bottom, lawyers. The graphic below shows the rankings of the ten professions (clipped from the Pew Forum article).
A retired colleague reading the article commented that he had concluded in his personal career that clergy made a low impact on people’s lives and that that contributed to his decision to retire (or, as he put it, “give up”). “I’m told I’m a great preacher,” he said, “but my preaching didn’t seem to change people’s lives. Near as I could tell they were just indifferent.” I sympathize, in fact I often identify with my friend’s comments. There are days when being a clergy person is awful; there are times when one feels (and even worse times when one is told in no uncertain terms) that not only is one not contributing to society’s welfare, one is making it worse!
On the other hand, I rather enjoyed the fact that my current profession ranks above my former career as a lawyer!
Sunday after church I mowed the lawn. I didn’t want to mow the lawn, but I really had no choice. It has rained here quite a bit during the past three weeks and that rain had both encourage the grass to grow and prevented me from mowing the grass. So my one-third of an acre (on a steep hillside, by the way) was beginning to look like native grass pasture land rather than a suburban lawn. Normally, I can cut the grass in about an hour and, if I have to do it, I can get the “weed whacking” and edging done in another thirty minutes. On Sunday, because I had to mow twice (once with the mower deck at high setting followed by another pass at a lower level, both passes going relatively slowly), it took a bit longer. I started at 2:30 p.m. and finished at 6:19 p.m.
On my first pass through the back yard I noticed a bright, lime-green praying mantis struggling through the grass; the insect seemed to be injured, but I couldn’t tell. He (or she) was in the section I would mow on my next pass, so I kept an eye out and, sure enough, there it was in front of the mower when I pushed it back that direction. I stopped and let the mantis move out of the way, headed for the bushes at the edge of the lawn.
A couple of hours later, string trimmer in hand, I was whacking the tall growth around the stone-edged planters, the mail box, and the fire hydrant in the tree lawn, when I came across a small brown-green toad in among the plants I was about the decimate with .93 “fishing line.” I nudged the toad away with my toe (I was going to say I “toed away the toad” but that would be too cute, wouldn’t it?), moving it to safety before I continued trimming the grass.
Earlier in the day I had preached about a familiar parable. The gospel lesson appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary for the day was the story of the Good Samaritan, the story of a man on a journey, a man with a purpose of his own to accomplish, stopping to aid a fellow traveler in distress. Stopping to let an insect move out of danger or encouraging a toad to move out of harm’s way is not, I don’t think, equivalent, but the spirit is the same. And as I spent time in meditation trudging along behind the lawn mower, it occurred to me that all three actions provide a response to the Pew Research poll.
Clergy don’t, generally, make a big splash in the world, and the ones who do usually, it seems, do so to the detriment of our collective reputations! Sure, there are the exceptional clerics like Pope Francis, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu, or the Dalai Lama, but in general most clergy do small things in small congregations in small communities. We don’t make a difference in society at large; if we make any sort of contribution at all, it is in the lives of individual people – sitting at a hospital bedside, baptizing an infant, counseling two people about to get married, celebrating a teenager’s graduation from high school. The church as a whole is supposed to make a contribution to society; the clergy’s job is make a difference in the lives of the people who make up the church.
So, although I do understand my friend-and-colleague’s angst about indifference in society and that low 37% rating by the Pew Research folks, I’d encourage him and other clergy not to give it too much attention. Attend to the praying mantises and the toads, to the poor beggars in the roadside ditches, to the hospital patients and the babies and the newlyweds and the new graduates; do your best to make a difference in the lives of individuals. Do that and you’ll have lived with integrity and you’ll have something to tell about in the great congregation, something about which to bless the Lord in midst of full assembly. Then send the assembly out to contribute to the well-being of society: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord!” It’s really their job!
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.