Reflections of an Elder

by Wes Seeliger
President, The Foundation for Contemporary Theology, Houston, Texas

What I am going to do this morning is quite different from what I did yesterday. I want to engage in some very personal, autobiographical reflections. My excuse for doing that is not because there is something about my life which is just so terribly fascinating that it’s got to be told in public. It is exactly the opposite. My guess is that my inner, spiritual journey is so much like yours that you will be able to reflect along with me about your life. The content will not be exactly the same, but I would bet a lot of money, maybe even the winning lottery ticket, that a lot of the themes and moods will be the same.

Let me start by talking about the reflections of an elder. In 1994, I went to a program called “New Warrior”. It is one of the men’s programs. It has an absolutely hideous name, but it is one of the best programs I have ever been to. I would consider it the equivalent value of about five years of good AA. If you want to know, “Is New Warrior something like the Promise Keepers?” No! It is not like the Promise Keepers; it is diametrically opposed to anything Promise Keepers is about. The New Warrior is for the older folks, persons fifty years and older. They have a special elders training for men. I went to the elders program about this time last year, so I am now an official “New Warrior Elder”. I am going to say some things about being an elder.

The first thing is that this training program helped me make the shift from our societal insanity about being young. You know that I am just not young anymore, and unless I live to be one hundred and eighteen, I am not middle-aged anymore. I am not an old man, but I sure as hell am not middle-aged, or young. So what it’s about, is to claim being an elder. That’s a nice term, better than other terms, like old “F”. I have new thoughts about being an elder and about my consciousness of being an elder. Damn it, I have paid my dues! I have a right to go around doing what I am doing and being who I am being!

Number two, I am wise. I know you are not supposed to say things like that. Momma taught me not to, but I am wise. On any given airplane, I am in the top 10 percent of the reflective persons on that airplane. Unless I get a flight going from New Haven, Connecticut (or wherever the hell Yale is), I am in the top 10 percent. I am powerful. I’m not Arnold Schwarzenegger, but by golly I know how to get a lot of things done, and I have the where-with-all to do them.

Now we get to the third category: I am also dying. To those of you who love me, let me say that I don’t have some terrible disease. I am dying of human existence. That’s what is killing me, human existence. Let me give you a little snippet on that. My wife and I had a dog that kicked the bucket a couple of years ago, and we have often talked about getting a new puppy. The reason I don’t want to do it (and I always think about this when we talk about it) is that damn dog could live until I am 70 years old. I find that possibility disgustingly offensive.

More about me: I have been a lifelong stranger in the institutional church. I have never felt at home. I hate priests who get into the seasons of the church year. They have all the liturgies, and they know all the options. They can tell you where each prayer came from and trace its development through the two-thousand year history of the church. God, I just hate that! You know there are people who really enjoy being priests. It takes all kinds. There are people who are at home with what I call paint-by-the-numbers theology. Somebody, somewhere along the line, told them to believe in the Doctrine of the Trinity and so they wrote it down, and they believe in the Doctrine of the Trinity. Even as a kid, I did not fit in the church. I could not believe what I was taught to believe, which was of course a literalistic interpretation of the Bible. I questioned myself about that: “Something must be terribly wrong with me.” It never once occurred to me that biblical literalism is sort of goofy and that the clergy who were teaching the Bible as historic facts needed to go back to school. It was I who was having the trouble believing, you see, not they who were having trouble understanding and communicating what they were suppose to understand and communicate. I thought that since I am so emotionally needy (I was brought up like 99 percent of the people in the world, in a dysfunctional family), I couldn’t be godly, because if you are godly, you can’t be needy. That is a contradiction in terms. Being godly is about having your needs taken away by Jesus, and I could never be nice enough. Christians are all sort of like Mr. Rogers, and I was madder than hell at my parents half the time and jealous of other people, like my sister, who was a year and a half chronologically older than I am, but seventeen years otherwise.

At Perkins School of Theology (I am skipping around here) I had the feeling from day one: “What am I doing here with all the miniature Methodist preachers? I found as a second year seminary student that I was developing the kind of rage at the Methodist system that most Methodist preachers who have been in it forty years have. “If it is this bad now, what is it going to be like down the road?” I wanted to kill the Methodist bishop when I was twenty-two years old. Then I ran into Dick Wheatcroft at St. Francis Episcopal Church, and I thought, “Oh God, this is what I am looking for.” Of course I became an Episcopalian, but I had to do a little con job on myself. As I was struggling with the decision to move from Methodist to Episcopal, I said, “I think most Episcopal churches are like St. Francis, and most rectors are like Dick Wheatcroft.” Wrong! But it is still better than the Methodist Church.

On the twenty-second of June 1966, I was ordained a priest. I woke up that morning in a little bitty cabin in Austin, Texas. I mean, you talk about tiny. You swung your legs around the bed and you were sitting right in front of this little window air conditioner. I remember this “eternal now” type moment with the cold air of the air conditioner blowing in my face. I was thinking, “Tonight, I am going to be ordained a priest. Okay, Seeliger you have thought about this a long time. But thinking about it is one thing, and doing it is sort of like that scene in all of the prison movies. The guy is going to the electric chair, and the warden comes in and says, ‘Son it’s time.’” I don’t know how I made it to the ordination. For thirty-two years I have been in, but not of, the church. I have been a priest for thirty-two years. Do you realize that I have been a priest for as long as Jesus was alive? And if that doesn’t rattle your cavities, I have been a priest in the Diocese of Texas for as long as Jesus was alive. I keep hearing voices. Do you realize that when St. Thomas Aquinas was my age, namely fifty-nine, he had been dead ten years? I hear the voice of St. Thomas occasionally. “How are you doing down there, boy? You published two books, didn’t you? Take it to them, boy. You got you a Foundation for Contemporary Theology. Well, man, you are really tearing it up down there in the Diocese in Texas, aren’t you?” And I say, “Yes, St. Thomas, I am really tearing it up down here in Texas.” Okay?

My big complaint

Why do I feel like such a stranger in the church? Here are some of the reasons.

Institutional theological cowardice. The church is an institution, and it’s cowardly. That’s why the purpose of this Foundation, which I keep talking about, is to bring the best possible theology to the largest possible audience.

Hierarchical squandering of human resources. The Episcopal Church and all the other churches spend human resources like drunken sailors on leave. What I am talking about here is not Congregationalism being the ideal and the Episcopal organization being the problem. The problem is not Episcopal organization; it is arrogant exclusivism. What we need instead of that is responsible inclusiveness in the use of human resources. My secondary gripe on this issue is that we chew up good people, but that is not even the worst part of it. The worst part of it is the desperate need out there for the best of what the church has to offer. How many people do you know who have been burned by the foolishness, the lack of imagination, the lack of courage, and the befuddlement of the institutional church? They have to have three heart attacks and a head on collision before they can pray again. You should not have to have three heart attacks and a head on collision to get back to God because the church has been so damn stupid during your formative years.

Strategic lovelessness. Moral impotence. The church has not been a courageous voice, a prophetic voice, in our culture. Blacks, Vietnam, women, gays, economic injustice — during the eighties, we were stone silent. With the economic boom of the eighties, ninety percent of the increase went to the top ten percent of the people. At present, the top two percent of the persons in our culture own eighty percent of the wealth, leaving the bottom ninety-eight with the remaining twenty percent. And we say nothing about that. The fat cats have got our tongues, so to speak, our prophetic tongues.

Lack of imagination and creativity, another major indictment. What is far worse than all the stuff the church does that’s bad is what the church could do if we had the courage to pay attention, to really listen to what’s going on and then to be faithful.

Three major issues

1. Bring the best theology to the largest possible audience.

I think that theology is the heart and soul of the strategic problem with the church. We are running on paint-by-the-numbers theology, and it doesn’t work. If we ever got through to the mainstream the profound theological insights of the twentieth century, not to mention the first nineteen centuries, it would be an entirely new ball game. Things like evangelism would look one hundred percent different. The basic issue in our day, theologically, is the question of God. It is not how do you get saved, or what are the sacraments. What the devil do you mean by the term “God”? We need to be able to articulate what we mean to ourselves. You can forget the decade of evangelism if you don’t deal with that sucker, because that is what the people out there, who wouldn’t be caught dead in here, are hung up on. They don’t know what the dickens we mean by God. Even most of the sophisticates don’t know, and we have to talk world views with the average guy on the street. One of my favorite books is called “The Universe Next Door”. It is not a good book on the inside, but the title makes it worthwhile. What we have to face is that we live in different universes. We have different default systems. Unless we deal with that reality, we are not dealing with evangelism. We have not even touched it.

The understanding of scripture is a whole new world. Look at what Martin Luther was doing in the Protestant Reformation of sixteenth century, trying to come to terms with scripture. That poor guy was trying to build a Rolls Royce with a screw driver and a pair of pliers. Right now, we know more about the scriptures and how they were made and what they mean than we have in any century, other than the century during which they were written.

We need to get with philosophical theology, relating the theological claims of the church to the other truth claims and to the notion of verification. How do you people know that what you claim is true? That is a whole other world. Think about genetic engineering. We might be able to clone the Aggie band. The question is, do we want to? Would that be a good idea? I have already talked about religious pluralism. We also need to take on the secular face of our culture. “He who dies with the most expensive toys wins.” Wins what? Another statement of our secular salvation came from Vince Lombardi. He’s the biggest secular theologian we have. “There is no room for number two.” Do you know that half the jerks in Harris County believe that? There is no room for number two; winning is not only the most important thing, it is everything. That’s what chews up people in our world. We need to take that on, head first.

The main thing that I want to see done before I kick the bucket is some big stuff in the area of theological renewal.

2. The institutional church

Although all of my life I have taken great delight in goosing mother church, I am a loyal supporter of the institutional church, and I have no illusions. If we split off and made another super-wonderful church, in fifty years it would be up to the same kind of foolishness. The reason for that you sociologists already know. The reason institutions screw up is because they are run by people who like to run institutions. They are not run by visionaries and prophets.

Loyal support to mother church I think deserves about 15 percent of my emotional energy, time, and talent. My other 85 percent goes to what I call the “movemental” church. The deeper spiritual investment goes here. This gathering is a perfect example of the movemental church if you are wondering what in the world I mean by that. I think it is important to look for bridges to get what goes on in the movemental church into the institutional church.

Another dimension is social compassion, aligning with pioneer movements, for example, Ronnie Dugger’s Alliance for Democracy — a wonderful organization which promotes working through one’s political party, whichever that one happens to be. To push the institutional church to whatever degree possible is to take responsibility for really making a loving witness and a powerful witness in the world. But be careful not to get a hernia doing that. You do not want to waste too much time trying to get the institutional church to be a radical, prophetic community. The thing starts rolling, and you give it a little extra push. If it doesn’t move on the third push, then you go on to something else.

3. Strategy

Number one is networking. Not networking is the only unforgivable sin. If you claim to care about the world and understand the gospel, and you are not a networker, either you are crazy or you are too sinful to go to heaven.

Number two, create signs and wonders. Do things that capture the imagination. Get people to say, “I wonder if I can do something like that,” or, “Why don’t we do more of that?” For example, in here we brag on ourselves. I said I was wise. We are going to do this high profile event on Christianity and Islam at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom. With two thousand people expected, we are trying to get the Mayor there. This is a sign of what it means to be redemptive people in our kind of world.

A third attitude, which is terribly important: “Just do it!” Some of you may remember Keith Bardin, a Wes Seeliger type priest in Austin, Texas. He is dead now, but he was a bishop’s vicar. He said, “Since I am standing in the place of the bishop, I have the power of the bishop, and I am just going to do in Austin, Texas, what I think some bishop ought to be doing in Austin, Texas.” So he sort of consecrated himself without telling headquarters, and he started acting as if he were the bishop.

Number four is new behavior for me. Live in peace, both inner peace and outer peace, when possible. That is new behavior. I have always felt that unless I was agitated and was considering doing something dreadful, I was being unfaithful. Not anymore. And not peace for the sake of being like Mr. Rogers, but for the sake of saving energy. One problem with being an elder is that you have only so much time and energy, and by golly you can’t chase every car that comes by.

For the rest of my life, the kind of life I want to live:

One: a life that is very conscious of death. That is not morbidity to me. A friend of mine once said that death was not his friend, and it was not his enemy. It was his advisor, his counselor, the one he checked with in case there needed to be a course correction. I don’t have any time to waste. I am talking about numbering my days. I need to claim my elderhood. A big part of that is always remembering what it has cost me to be who I am and what it has cost me to know what I know. I don’t want to get us all weepy and in tears, but I am sure that I could if we worked on it. What has it cost you to be who you are? What has it cost you to know what you know? The idea of wasted anything is intolerable, unthinkable, when you get in touch with the cost of your being who you are and knowing what you know.

Two: strategic doing. Pick the issues carefully, and win when possible, not win all the time. Winning is an exciting second, but win when you can win. If the fight is worth losing, then you fight and lose. Otherwise, you fight to win.

Three: profound being. This is a new one for me — the discovery of profound being. I have made the discovery that action will not for long outdistance being. If I don’t get in touch with my being, if I don’t honor my “amness”, all of this good doing stuff is not going to amount to a heck of a lot, and it is not going to last long. We need to become people like Ghandi, whose very breath signaled what the whole movement was about. We need to wait on the Lord. I hate that, but I am learning slowly, and I am moving in that direction.

Four: I have become disgustingly religious. And I love it. I pray all the time. When you think about prayer, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but when you do it, it is a different matter. James Carse wrote a book, which Dick Wheatcroft told me about, called The Silence of God. Carse makes two statements that have stuck in my mind. One is that when you pray, you pray from the heart. Forget your damn theology. AA also taught me that. (I am an alcoholic.) I pray from my heart, and I pray for stuff that I would have thrown up praying about in seminary. Every year I pray that Texas will beat A&M. My prayer is not always answered, but that’s what I pray, and I am not ashamed of that. Prayer to me is pouring out your heart to God — including all of the outrageous stuff, all the anger, everything — and daring to be a child of God. The problem is that, when we get into prayer, we want to be the adults of God, not the children of God. We don’t want to do what my son did to me when he was two years old. “Daddy, I hate you. I am never going to speak to you. I hope you die.” If I can take that and still love my son, why can’t God take that from us and still love us? I think he can, or she can. The other thing from Carse — prayer is begging God for life. I like that, not just for me, but for what I am involved in, for the people I love and for myself.

Five: ritual and symbol. The discipline of ritual is also important — ritual, symbol, myth, music, even holy junk. I have fallen in love with all the holy junk of Roman Catholicism. I love the saints, and the worse the statue it is, the more I like it. Discipline is terribly important. Discipline in order to stay conscious and to stay focused is another very important part of my lifestyle.

Finally: we can’t do this alone. We need to have special partners or a special partner. Let me call your attention to the second chapter of Genesis. I have spent a whole lot of my life trying to go it alone, and that is not terribly productive. I like the story in the second chapter of Genesis. God creates a human being and sets the creature in a garden. God sticks the human in a garden and says to keep it and tend it. Then it is God, not the human creature, who says that it is not good that a human should be alone. The human doesn’t say, “I’m lonely.” God says, “I will create the right kind of helper.” So out of the ground, out of the dust of the earth, God fashions every living creature — June bugs, hippopotamuses, armadillos, everything — and each one is brought by God to the human. And the human gives each a name. Then we have perhaps a little discussion between the human and God as to whether this one will be the appropriate partner: June bugs, cows, rhinoceros, and all of the others. “Hey, God, what’s that fluffy one? It doesn’t have very big teeth and it is kind of soft. Oh, let’s call that a sheep.” (It is a good thing the first human being was not an Aggie or we might not have had any people for partners.) Anyway, not even the sheep with all of its desirable characteristics is for the human. So God causes the human to go into a deep sleep and divides the creature into two parts. God takes out a rib, and from this rib he fashions a woman and the rest becomes a man. Then God introduces the naked man to the naked woman, and the man says, “This at last is the bone of my bone and the flesh of my flesh.” What was going on in their spirits at that particular moment as they stand there nude in the presence of God? “In this moment, we see June bugs and cows and dragon flies and hippopotamuses, but this is who we are. We are partners.” Wouldn’t you like to know, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story? Is that all they said? Were there any questions like “Hey, God, what are those?” or, “What’s that?” or, “How does it work?” We don’t have any of that.

Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh — what we need is a partner or partners with whom we can have profound respect and radical openness. As one of my therapist friends says, you need intimacy, shared visions, common discipline, and a commitment to something more than your own union, a commitment to what’s out there.

When I was a freshman at Seminary, we had for district superintendent this big old fat guy who looked like he was from the ice house. His name was T. Herbert Menga. This was 1961, also before women were invented. T. Herbert Menga had a fire side chat with the boys, with the new guys in seminary, talking man to man. So T. Herbert got up there with his suspenders and said, “Boys, the most important thing in the ministry is the wife you marry. Be sure you marry the right kind of woman.” That grossed me out something awful. I wanted to throw up. What he meant of course was, “Marry somebody who is going to look right in the Methodist parsonage.” What he was talking about was politics, and in that sense it does need throwing up about. What I am saying is that, if you are going to be involved in the life experience, you damn sure better get you a bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh person. In that sense, I think T. Herbert Menga was being exactly right, only we need to expand that from the right kind of wife to the right kind of partner.

It seems to me that this Genesis story is also a good context for talking about TCPC, which means The Center for Progressive Christianity. I understand why the TCPC, but it does sound like a gasoline additive. I wish we had a better name. In my time in the ministry, I have seen a lot of good preachers come along, but one reason I am lonely and frustrated in the priesthood is that I haven’t found bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh in the church. A lot of things have been brought my way, for example, Cursillo. Well I don’t know but what Cursillo is sort of like a cow. It is not ugly; it is not terrible; but it is not bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, and spirit of my spirit. It is a lot of colors and happy little songs, sort of a church camp for adults. A lot of people do have profound experiences, but Cursillo is not bone of bone and flesh of my flesh. Decade of evangelism? Turkey. Renewal? At least around here that’s a warthog.

When I read this brochure about TCPC and this conference, I saw some things that made me feel like Adam and Eve may have felt when God introduced them to each other. The brochure says what TCPC is. It is not a gasoline additive but a gathering of people, a movement. TCPC “celebrates difference.” Within the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, we can’t even tolerate differences among the clergy, let alone between clergy and laity, or between denominations, or between other Christian groups, much less differences with people who just flat don’t give a damn. Around here we really don’t want to get involved with those people. The idea of not tolerating differences but celebrating differences, what’s that? “Welcoming all people.” Does that mean all all or just mostly all? “Deeply respectful other religious traditions.” Why don’t we do that? Wouldn’t that be fun? “More grace in the search for meaning.” The search, did you hear that? No wonder they think we are Unitarians. Unitarians are always searching for God. Episcopalians have had God in their back pockets for two thousand years. Listen to this: “More grace in the search for meaning than in absolute certainty.” Where did that come from? This is not another June bug. We pay “more attention to the way people treat each other than to the beliefs they articulate.” Well, now there is a strange idea in the church I know. Then, we are actively engaging in “costly discipleship”. Remember my St. Anne’s cross. Costly discipleship is the “renunciation of privilege”. The way the Episcopal Church really functions is about the accumulation of privilege, for crying out loud. And then, of course, “resistance to evil”. Bishop, are you sure we want to get into that? I had an experience while reading that brochure, much like Adam and Eve’s experience. At last, I am not alone. Here is a friend, perhaps a friend God is making with our participation, to be with us in our search, in this terribly important time. TCPC: bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.

One of the things I can hardly stand is for clergy to read things that they should know their congregations have heard a dozen times, if not more. And I am going to read something to you that you should have heard a dozen times or more, if you have been hanging around the church. My excuse for breaking my own rule is this fits so beautifully with what I am talking about. It summarizes what I am talking about. This, of course, comes from Reinhold Niebuhr, a quote that all of you preachers have preached sermons on, but here it comes one more time. “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.” And by far most important, especially in the light of my story about Genesis: “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”

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