Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Stepping Back to Take a Second Look – Part I

There are times in my life where I have been required to back up and take a second look at something I thought I’d already figured out. In years past when I was a little closer in orbit to the Episcopal Church, I would have described that as G-d using an existential 2 X 4 to get my attention and perhaps that’s not such a bad description to use. This past weekend provided my life one of those events.

The Franciscan Third Order held its every other month meeting Saturday. Given that it was my turn to host the meeting, I had originally suggested that we meet in our home as we had previously done but one of our members is highly allergic to cats and so we had to go to Plan B.

The closest I have to any real connection to the Episcopal Church in this diocese is St. Richard’s Church in Winter Park. The new rector is a graduate of my seminary in Berkeley and so the chances of encountering the fundamentalist and homophobic mindlessness that has gripped this diocese for two decades now are pretty slim there. The parish was having a work day but the folks on site provided us their hospitality in the form of a gracious welcome as we entered, meeting space and coffee and tea for our gathering.

Feed My Sheep 

I chose to use the feast day on the Lesser Feasts and Fasts calendar for the readings for our eucharist. Frankly, I only vaguely remembered reading about Charles Simeon in seminary whose feast day was celebrated Nov. 12. But his biography and appointed lessons made for a provocative morning.

The Gospel lesson was the rather puzzling passage in John 21 where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him and each time responds, “If you do, then feed my sheep.” Years ago before I left to go to seminary, the then-dean of St. Luke’s Cathedral downtown where I was a parishioner used this passage for a mini-homily at a noon service. Pointing into the congregation, he used me as an example of how I fed the parish’s sheep, watching out for the interests of a fellow parishioner who was legally blind and destitute. He spoke of how I often transported Charles to where he needed to go which often included events at the cathedral. The dean concluded his little homily with the exhortation to others to take this example of Jesus’ call to feed his sheep seriously.

It was both embarrassing and humbling. On the one hand, being held up as an example of a sermon always puts a parishioner on the spot even when it is merited. On the other hand, while I felt I was doing nothing special, simply living into what I saw as my obligations to others in the manner that was available to me, it was humbling and affirming to hear the positive way others saw this.

The biography of Charles Simeon that served as the basis for our discussion following the lessons mentioned that he attended Cambridge. He quickly realized that the required chapel attendance rule there had caused a good bit of hypocrisy and what he saw as “the irreverent reception of the sacrament.” What Simeon’s conscience told him was that if he was to go to chapel, he would have to take it seriously, reconsider his life (the actual meaning of the word repent) and “turn to God.”

Simeon: His zeal brought him much abuse

This turning point in his life led to a career as chaplain at one of the colleges at Cambridge. The LF&F biography  notes that “Simeon’s enthusiasm and zeal brought him much ridicule and abuse which he bore uncomplainingly.” But the point of the bio was not to make a martyr out of Simeon as too many enthusiasts for their faith tend to seek out of ego-centrism. Rather, it was to note that while Simeon bore an awful lot of crap from the undergraduates under his charge, he also managed to inspire a handful of his students.

One, Henry Martyn, was convinced by Simeon to turn from a proposed career in law (Hurrah!) and become a missionary, ultimately translating the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer into several different languages. A second, William Wilberforce, would become inspired to lead the fight to abolish slavery.

As we discussed the life of Charles Simeon, I began to think of how a handful of my own students have told me over the years how I had impacted their lives. Clearly they stand in stark contrast to the vast majority who readily decry that impact by both word of mouth to fellow students, in the online consumerist surveys which are erroneously and dishonestly described as instructor evaluations and at the various online sites designed to warn fellow slackers against taking demanding instructors like me. If, as the psalmist says, my sins were not already "ever before me," there is certainly no shortage of folks who are more than happy to tell me of their dissatisfaction with the diligence and the seriousness I bring to my calling as an educator.

Like Simeon, my enthusiasm and zeal for my vocation readily bring me much ridicule and abuse, though clearly I am not as willing to bear it uncomplainingly as Simeon. No doubt that is why he is on the saints’ calendar and I am unlikely to ever make it there.

On the other hand, I have had a handful of students over the years say to me that my teaching had meant a great deal to them. Some say it has inspired them to go and serve the world, something that truly warms the heart of this Enneagram 2 Helper type/ENFP Champion teacher. And others have told me that while they hated the class while they were in it, they later realized how it had helped them learn to think critically and to view the world in a more expansive manner. That is no small amount of consolation in the face of a raft of grief.

This is where the 2 X 4 comes in.

(continued in Part II)

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando


 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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