Priesting from the Between

What follows is a talk I recently gave at a conference in Dallas. 

I. Ministering from the Middle: the Dangers of Priesthood.

I want to begin today with a quick story, a story about my wife Bouquet and my 15-year old daughter Bella. That’s right: Bella is 15 years old, which means that she is in the throes of puberty, right in the middle of those glorious teenage years.

In all seriousness, she is a wonderful, blossoming, young woman, full of love, humility, and kindness. And yet, there is one area of real disagreement with her mother: piano lessons. After about eleven straight years of nonstop piano lessons, Bella really wants to quit piano lessons. There’s only one problem: her mother / my wife.

Her mother / my wife … who is also my best friend, my closest advocate, and … someone with whom I don’t really look forward to crossing swords. And yet, I also see where Bella is coming from. And so, here I am, caught in the middle.

And speaking of being caught in the middle, that’s actually a feeling / position that I’m fairly well acquainted with. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m a middle child, but I always seem to find myself … in the middle. When I was a church planter in urban Austin in the early “aughts,” I found myself in the middle of the “Mother Church” / “Sending Church” on the one hand, and the church plant—that rag tag group of misfits who were newcomers and outsiders to the tradition—on the other. So many messy issues. From the point of view of the Mother Church: “why do the kids cry in church so often?” “When will these new members finally start carrying their weight financially?” … And from the perspective of the church plant community: “Why are the elders so cold and standoffish? Why won’t they let us do such and such? Why are they so uptight and controlling?”

And by the way it’s pretty much the same in my current role. About 21 months ago Christ Church in Tyler, Texas opened the doors of a second campus, a second worshipping community called “Christ Church South.” Last fall over 30 adults were confirmed / received by the Bishop. A year before that, almost none of them could spell “Episcopalian.” The issues between the “established community” of Christ Church in Downtown Tyler on the one hand, and Christ Church South (the second campus) on the other are quite similar to the issues and dynamics I experienced in Austin … and once again I find myself smack dab, right in the middle. More often than not I see both sides. I get both sides. And I find myself called—in the sense of vocation—to mediate and to minister from the between.

And while I do have the conviction that, all things being equal, I need to support my wife over my daughter, and that that should be my “default position,” nevertheless I’d be lying if I denied that, well, I usually feel caught in the middle.

And, by the way, I am not complaining. Because you see, this position of “in between” is exactly where a priest is supposed to be situated. Biblically, it is the vocation of the prophet to stand above the people, to proclaim a message from God on high. In contrast to this, it is the special calling the priest to stand in between the people and God, and to advocate (through prayer) for the people, with dirt on one’s hands, in deep solidarity with the people.

Now I said I’m not complaining … but in all seriousness and candidness, well, the fact is that it is not easy, ministering from the middle, mediating from the between.

Another example of finding myself in the middle has to do with the sexual / identity gender wars which are raging in our culture and also in our Church (the Episcopal Church). At Christ Church South we have recently “lost” folks—folks have left the church community, both because we are (supposedly) too liberal and because we are (supposedly) too conservative. For some, we are too liberal because most folks in the community—including me at times—are openly critical of Trump, and we are too conservative b/c the leadership of Christ Church in Tyler—including myself—refuse to perform gay marriages.

And my first point today is that this position of being in the middle, ministering from the between … it’s dangerous, is it not? I mean, it’s so easy to lose ppl on both sides … or perhaps more importantly, it’s so easy to fear losing ppl on both sides.

And yet, I am convinced—at least in my better moments, perhaps my more sober[1] moments—that this kind of community—a community that mediates from the middle—is what the world truly needs.

Two quick caveats, BTW.

  1. By “middle,” I don’t mean “moderate”. I don’t think that Jesus or any of the apostles were simply moderates, and for me personally the thought of being moderate makes me wanna throw up in my mouth a little bit. By “middle,” or “in the between” or “from the between,”[2] I mean:
    1. a neither-nor position
    2. a both and position
    3. a tertium quid position that is “off the map/spectrum”
    4. a position able to hold different people / factions / parties together. Able to hold them together, or at least to hold out hope of holding them together.
  2. Secondly, there is a resonance here with what it means to be embodied, as in the body of Christ. Super briefly, did you know that for the Greeks, sight is primary; for the Hebrews hearing is primary; but for the Christians, touch is primary?
    1. Aristotle on how touch proves the soul;
    2. Christianity and touch, b/c of the Eucharist.

This way of ministering from the middle, priesting from the between, is not only difficult, it is also painful. My experience is that it is painful in similar ways that marriage is painful.

And yet, our world is (literally) dying for non-ideological community. You see, the Body of Christ is between “love of one’s own” (like Polemarchus in Book II of Plato’s Republic, or like the tribalism of Donald Trump) on the one hand, and ideological pseudo-community on the other. By ideological pseudo-community I mean something like a political party (where ppl hang out together b/c they agree on some positions), or something like a country club (the causes of association which sociologists can describe). But, as Peter Leithart argues in Against Christianity, the church is not like that at all—not like either of those forms of pseudo-community. Rather, it is like marriage and family.

Speaking of marriage, here’s a question for those of you who are married: do you always agree with your spouse? Do I always agree with my wife? She might say “We need to put our children in public schools,” and I might say, “No: we need to put them in Christian schools.” What if this disagreement turns out to be intractable? Do I then have right to look and her and say “I’m out”? Is it a faithful option for me to be like, “My way or the highway.” No, its not. Not, at least, if my marriage is to be a Christian one.

See, I think that the Church is like that. And that is the way I try to be a priest: to model that, to foster that, to allow God to bring that about. And no one said it would be easy.

And one of the reasons it isn’t easy is because this is the path which resists the temptation of control. As Sarah Coakley writes in her book God, Sexuality, and the Self (in a riff on John Milbank), “theology is the discourse of unmastery.”

Nowhere do I fear losing control more than with the issue of gay marriage in the church. Nowhere am I tempted to try to re-assert my own control of the situation than when it comes to issues around homosexuality and homosexuals in the church. If I do nothing else here at this conference, perhaps the Holy Spirit is prompting me to make that specific confession. Gay issues scare the beJeezus out of me.

II. Ministering from the Middle: the Desire of the Priesthood.

And that leads me to my next point: not just the danger of the priesthood, but the desire of the priesthood. Not just the danger of the priesthood, but the allurement of the priesthood.

Because you see, when I confess this fear in my life, well, fear is an emotion. It is what premodern thinkers, including folks like Jonathan Edwards, would call an affection.

And rather than be in denial about such feelings and emotions and issues of the heart and passions, I actually believe God wants me to lead with them.

I’ve been an ordained presbyter in the church for almost two decades, and during that entire time when people come up to me on the street and ask, “Why did you decide to become a pastor?” my stock answer has always been, “Because I love books, and I love people.” But more recently I have been realizing that the priesthood, for me, is such a gift b/c it allows me to lead with the heart.

Here’s another confession for you. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I’ve always wanted ppl to think that I’m smart. Sadly for me, then, the one consistent piece of feedback I’ve always received as a priest is not “Father Matt, you are so smart.” Unfortunately for me, people just don’t very often tell me I’m super intelligent. But what they do tell me—this is consistent over a period of two decades—is that I’m passionate.

Being a priest is great becaus it allows one to lead with the heart. There aren’t very many other careers / vocations[3] that allow you to lead with the heart. But the priesthood does. Thanks be to God. What a reason to rejoice!

After all, CS Lewis says that the Faith is more “caught than taught” (that’s why he speaks of “the good infection.”) Aidan Kavanaugh says that the liturgy is not something that one learns, but rather that one is seduced into. This is why in our Episcopal College Community in Tyler, our ministry to University students, in our leadership meetings we talk about how we want to go “like this.” We want to live lives out of which the aroma of Christ wafts. We want our community to be on which smells like the body and blood of Christ.

Now, if I’m right about the priority of desire,[4] then one implication is that dead orthodoxy is not an option; it is to be avoided at all costs, like the plague.

OK, well how can we be orthodox w/o being dead? Well, I agree with Sarah Coakley’s answer: by contemplation. (Mysticism: the conviction that God wants us to experience God.)

… Prayer … is the chief context in which the irreducible threeness of God becomes humanly apparent to the Christian. It does so because—as one ceases to set the agenda and allows room for God to be God—the sense of the human impossibility of prayer becomes more intense (Rom 8:26), and drives one to comprehend the necessity for God’s own prior activity in it. Strictly speaking, it is not I who autonomously prays, but God (the HS) who prays in me, and so answers the eternal call of the “Father,” drawing me by various painful degrees into the newly expanded life of “Sonship.” There is, then, an inherent reflexivity in the divine, a ceaseless outgoing and return of the desiring God; and insofar as I welcome and receive this reflexivity, I find that it is the HS who “interrupts” my human monologue to a (supposedly) monadic God; it is the HS who finally thereby causes me to see God no longer as patriarchal threat but as infinite tenderness; but it is also the HS who first painfully darkens my prior certainties, enflames and checks my own desires, and so invites me ever more deeply into the life of redemption in Christ. In short, it is this “reflexivity in God” this Holy Spirit, that makes incarnate life possible.–Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self, 42.

See, because contemplation leads us to lose control, it means that we become vulnerable. (Notice I did not say “exhibitionist.”)

  1. The priority of mythos (b/c it is correlated with desire, as CSL teaches in MBF).

A final point about contemplation / mysticism. Mysticism means not just that there is something beyond the physical, but also that the supernatural (which means “beyond the physical”) is more real. [rings of Saturn photo: now more than ever, the truth of neoplatonim just became much more plausible.] Paul Tyson, Returning to Reality.

Put the whole thing a different way. We’ve been discussing the issue of desire. You know what the best word for desire is? Thumos. This is Plato’s favorite term for desire. But it is not a desire for external goods, or bodily goods (like when your leg itches and you scratch it, or the desire for food & drink). No: thumos is the desire for … something else.

Thumos is the desire to belong; the desire to be wanted; the desire for relational intimacy.

Sally Field Oscar Award speech (1985, Places in the Heart):

“I want to say thank you to you. I have not had an orthodox career, and more than anything I’ve wanted your respect. The first time I won an Oscar I did not feel it, but this time I feel it. And I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now. You like me!”

And the crowd just goes crazy with applause. The kind of applause that Sally Field deeply deeply craves. The kind of applause that she, in this very speech, is admitting that she craves. 

Each one of us has what I call a “thumatic sweet spot,” where we desire and long to be touched. Not physically, of course, but spiritually.

And of course, thumos can also be warped & twisted. Our thumatic sweet spot can become an idol.

For an alcoholic, the thumatic sweet spot is not just romancing that first drink, but actually getting smashed. For an egomaniac narcissist, it is hearing words of affirmation all the time. For our Schnorkie* Janie, it is getting her belly rubbed while I make eye contact with her and say, “Good girl.”

But here’s the deal: the thumatic sweet spot is not bad. It’s how God made us. CS Lewis talks about it his essay “The Inner Ring.” In that essay he describes our need to “be one of the essential people” and “to be on the inside.”

What Sarah Coakley is saying in God, Sexuality, and the Self is that contemplative prayer is a way—I think she would say it is THE way—to satisfy one’s thumatic sweet spot. And I totally agree with her.

Each one of us has a “desire beneath the desire.” Beneath the alcoholic’s desire to change the way she feels through drink, she desires God. Beneath the narcisist’s desire to be affirmed and stroked all the time is his desire for God.

And this leads me to my third and final point (in addition to the danger of the priesthood and the desire of the priesthood): the open-endedness of the priesthood.

See, the priest gets to engage ppl in a process of satisfying their desire beneath the desire.

For me the very best part of the priesthood is that we get to come alongside others and lead them in this journey. We get to lead them, serve them, and submit to them. It is a journey of danger and a journey of desire. But the good news is that it is a journey into God. And that means that it is open-ended.

III. Ministering from the Middle: the Open-Endedness of the Priesthood (CONCLUSION)

This journey into God, this way of being Christians and human on the way … It’s more like an itinerary and less like a map. A life lived between origin and destination. One more story for you. Story about Burt & Ricky. [story abt danger, desire, & open-endedness]

  • I already mentioned that some ppl left Christ Church South b/c I am not prepared to perform gay marriages.
  • Well, Burt is a real leader in our community. Confirmed last fall; has found real community at CCS. He has found a family. His life has been transformed by Christ-in-community in ways that I don’t have time to discuss.
  • But here’s the deal: Burt’s brother is a married gay man. His mother is a married lesbian. Right now, he is struggling, b/c he wants to bring them to our church. He wants to share with them what he has found.
  • But he is worried that the church is not a safe space for them.
  • So what am I doing about this? Here’s what I’m doing: I invited Burt to read the Coakley book with Ricky, another friend of mine who is probably “orthodox” on gay issues, but also super open tempermentally, the kind of friend who immediately makes you feel safe.
  • Now, here’s my point: I do not know how this is going to end. Will Burt leave the church? Will I change my mind on gay marriage? Will there be totally different alternative that I cannot know imagine? All of those are real options.

See, in some ways, the situation is unworkable and intractable. But as we heard from Justin Welby last night, what do we do in situations that unworkable and intractable? 

We allow ourselves to be transformed. And, see, there’s the open-ended part, and there’s the contemplation part. Because what are we being transformed into?

We are being transformed into God, and that, friends, is a journey that never ends.


[1] By sober here I don’t mean “abstinent wrt to alcohol.”

[2] And this language of “the between” comes from an Irish catholic philosopher named William Desmond, whom I highly recommend.

[3] No, I’m not saying that “vocation” and “career” are synonymous.

[4] And that’s what I’ve been trying to convince you of for the last few minutes: the priority of desire, that in some sense, desire is more important, or more fundamental than reason. “What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies or rationalizes.”

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Deleuze, Identity, & Difference

On page 50 of Repetition and Identity, Catherine Pickstock argues that for Deleuze, “all there is is being,” univocally construed. That is, when Deleuze looks at any two things—whether they be two BMW A3’s, or two molecules of carbon dioxide, or two galanthus nivalis flowers—he denies that they are really different. Differences “seek constantly to escape the trap” of … the “ontologically representational sphere.”

What is this ontologically representational sphere? It is the “sphere” in which human minds attempt to categorize things in the world in to genê and species.

It is as if each individual thing tries to convince the human mind: “Look at me! I’m utterly different and unique!” But Deleuze won’t fall for this “trap.” He looks at a galanthus nivalis and says, “Nope. You are just another instance of the same, another instance of the subfamily Amaryllidoideae. And so on and so on, until we arrive at that genus called “being.”

That stance illustrates what “univocally construed” means: Against Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas, and with the likes of Suarez (and Heidegger), Deleuze thinks that being is a genus, that being is univocal.

What Pickstock, for her part, is saying, is that it is this commitment to being as univocal which forces Deleuze, at the end of the day, to deny difference, or to resolve the tension between identity (sameness) and difference in favor of the former.

Thanks to theology, she thinks, we can see that being is complex or analogical, and thus that there is a better way, a way in which true difference is preserved, affirmed, and celebrated.

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