What I am doing here?
Part of it is the messy existential stuff of a newly retired man, looking back to make summary statements what happened and what it meant, and finding to his surprise that looking at old and incomplete ideas lead on to new and inconclusive beginnings.
So, to start on a much smaller scale: clarifying the frequent use I make of Chaplain, Chaplinesque and Post-Chaplinesque.
I started using Chaplinesque as the name for my blog on an autumn afternoon in 2005 when I began ministering as a chaplain at La Trobe University, Melbourne and I noticed the sign outside our stairway: “Chaplin’s Office.” I took that sign as a sign when I began blogging about what my ministry looked like at that time and place. So much of it still stands true:
Chaplinesque. My spell-checker even recognises it as an anomaly, though it offers no alternative or definition. Googling brings: “reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, the English comedian who walked, danced, marauded through the world cinema from the 1900s to post WWII, the shabby tramp who made light of politics and pretension, aspirations and art.”
So maybe that is close to my mode as a chaplain here in the northern region of Melbourne in the autumn of 2005: a clown as well as a cultural critic, someone who’s spent time being alternately amused and terrified by the depth of pretension and hollowness in the modern world, but aiming towards some greater clarity, integrity and freedom.
I see myself as a teacher and minister of the parables: highlighting and exploring the biblical tales that Jesus tells to remind us who and whose we are; as well as helping others in their own moments of choice and chance when life – or God - drops a direct question in the midst of history, identity, or community and says, “So, where do you find me here?”
I have worked well there because I have been there too: sustained struggles in my own history have taken time but it has often turned out that the raw material of my own life made me a better companion and minister for others going through the same or similar territory. I am convinced that God can use every experience in moving towards a new creation, and so can we!
So sometimes I think I work as a minister simply because it gives me such great pleasure: to talk and pray and play with people while offering them a safe place to consider their relationship and response to what God and life may be asking of them. It is a joy and delight as well as an awesome responsibility.
In looking back I think the various definitions of Chaplin and Chaplain here constellate in the exercise of a ministry of support and presence aiming to help to represent new visions and revisions that come as we relate and respond to life in all its amazing array of choice and chance.
But the most personal definition of chaplain or minister comes before I ever joined a church. Because, for me, the place for family gathering and learning, for seasonal celebration and education, was the local tennis club. So the primary model I carry on ministry is the teaching professional tennis pro and the swim coach. I mean those men and women who give lessons, made room for meetings and meals, offered opportunities to work on basic strokes, footwork and follow-through with how we jumped into the pool and played the game was at the centre of it all. It was never stated but it turns out that my model of faithful intentional ministry and sacerdotal priesthood owes much to this framework.
This isn’t as far out as it might seem. Thomas Merton, when asked about the Mass at the occasion of his ordination to the priesthood, said it was a kind of ballet. If that worked for him then I feel much more at ease with my own image of a tennis club as a kind of sacramental and liturgical space where we learn to “live and move and have our being” in a graceful and intentional process of patterning that help us understand the “countless ways God uses material things to reach out to creation".
Now to return to about educational chaplaincy: with some years as a student, chaplain, staff member and occasional teacher in tertiary education, I have been both a product of and a participant in campus ministry. In the early years of the process several Anglican (Episcopal) chaplains, one Unitarian professor, and a Jesuit lecturer each modelled a model of continuing pilgrimage where heart, mind and wit could connect the deep wisdom of the church with daily life and contemporary issues:
The chaplains and teachers I knew in University and Seminary changed my life and my way of faith, how I followed Jesus, by offering a ministry of continuing reflective models in the daily context, the duties and delights, of their personal lives and professions. Their witness integrating theory and practice, exploring images and ideals and insights, opened me a to a friendly community of searchers and scholars, giving me my own options for visions and actions and plans in building my own life. They were also surprisingly countercultural in the mainstream of higher education in the United States.
For all these chaplaincies were embedded in large institutions with their own well-known signs and markers; for an academic calendar can offer as serious a liturgy as the church year for its people — providing seasons of planting and harvesting, casting seed and gathering seed together. Academe might not have a well-defined or celebrated sacramental system as the church defines it, but it does offer, at the best of times, a refined and systematic way, often derived from Christian tradition, of learning from and living into the crises and choices which life brings. These pregnant questions are the places where we learn to live our lives, and this is where we can also meet the ministry of parables that Jesus shared with his community of followers
A parable, as I understand it, tells a story, produces a narrative that asks the listener a question they must answer in a way consistent with all components of his or her life: a parable demands that we answer with all that we have and all that we are. In doing so it aims to break apart the often separate nature of how we see reality and open us to consider our lives as integral whole, as a vibrant experience shared with and reflective of the spectrum of the life we share within the widening circles of family, neighbour, friend, enemy, stranger and God. The chaplains I met in my long sojourn In education helped me respond to God and life more fully because of their ministry.
The other model for Chaplain I want to consider more about is one that Carl Dudley writes about in his classic, Making the Small Church Effective. For him, the “chaplaincy model” in ministry refers to a particular style of small “family” parish with an average Sunday attendance under fifty. Here the cleric presides at regular liturgical occasions and serves as personal chaplain to the gathered congregation as needed in the traditional road of baptism, confirmation (with the encouraging of a youth group), marriage, more baptisms, house blessings, hospital visits, home communions, and all the business of ageing and dying which lead to the funeral service and final sendoff.
Now this parish model of chaplaincy is well-known, traditional, often a vital and valuable ministry, and much good can be seen in churches that live and work like this. But this kind of community can sometimes turn into places where local customs and received traditions become the primary focus to the detriment of the communities larger spiritual health: hence the tired but true joke about the Anglican tendency to offer unchanging veneration to relatively unimportant things: “Change that light bulb? My grandfather donated that lightbulb!”
In a world where present chaos and fast-changing futures shake the foundations of everyday life, a comfortable chaplaincy can do valuable work. The strength of customary liturgical services in their regular times and places offer both hope and peace: there is a very good reason that the Holy Spirit is called the comforter! But the breadth of Scripture and tradition tells us that earthquakes and fires can also signal the advent of the spirit as much as the still small voice, that those chaotic surprising times can also be avenues for spiritual grace and growth. And if this call to confront chaos while looking for grace is a true aspect of our pilgrimage as followers of Jesus, when the ministry of the church must balance between (and here I creatively misquote the letter of James), both “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”
If we tend to look for God’s presence only on those occasions worn smooth by long custom and cherished tradition, then we can miss the very surprising places where Jesus often shows up. For it is in the times of tempest and trial, both in the Gospels as well as in the deepest traditions of the church gathering over the last two thousand years, where God can both call and challenge us to encounter a wild grace in a newborn world. Those can be the surprising places where the Holy Spirit blows away our old certainties with unexpected life and new beginnings.
This wide Christian way commits us to encounter the God of glory and grace in both cherished traditional practices as well as in newborn and unforeseen opportunities of ministry which the traditions of the cherished family church and chaplaincy can overlook. But it is these unsought for opportunities which often turn to be the very crossroad where we are offered the dangerous and ever new opportunity of connecting with the resurrected Jesus.
So even if a cherished ancestor bequeathed that special luminescence as a signpost of their own their spiritual journey, it turns out that light bulbs have changed in the last few years, to say nothing of the 140 years since Thomas Edison patented incandescent bulbs in the 1880s. And if we aim to share the light of Christ we might need to review current theories and practice of optics. This doesn’t mean we need to leave the past behind. I know one church, not far from where I live now, that cherishes the kerosene lamps hanging in the sanctuary, and makes sure they burn brightly for special occasions when family and friends of the original community gather to celebrate special occasions, even while the viability of that beloved building is under consideration by the larger parish of which it is now a part.
So one of the questions is this: if Jesus calls us to be a light to the world, how do we let our little light shine today? Is the family style parish with its chaplaincy model of ordained ministry, does the model found on higher education call us, or should we all take up our racquets and convene on the court? Which model is the one we need to follow, or is there a better way?