I was asked to offer a blessing before the meal. And I didn’t shirk the invitation. My words were less fluent than they had been those two, three, six years ago when my every day was soaked in the ad-libbing of prayers. I used to shirk the ask, annoyed that people wanted “a minister” to do a blessing when any one human is capable of blessing another. But I was appreciative of the invitation this time, some years out, and I stepped into the ask. I had very little in specific to say, but I knew how to hold the space. And to offer some words without apology, without making them mean more than they do - the gathering is the blessing - and drawing out the meaning that was already present.
It has been over two years now in which I have not been pastoring a church. It was a fluency I had in a language that is leaving me. I feel the cadence changing. And I feel the need to speak to what was in the leaving.
A rabbi was part of our dinner gathering last night. Active as the leader of a local congregation, she shared stories familiar to me about people unloading problems on her in the grocery store, about maneuvering to avoid running into a congregant sometimes out in the “real” world when she just didn’t have the capacity to be receptive.
Another familiar one was the elder woman, coming to the rabbi with a question about a burial practice as the rabbi was just passing through the hall en route to another responsibility, the rabbi’s quick response, and how her response got mis-telephoned through the gossip line finding its way back to the rabbi with a stack of evidence to the contrary and an angry sticky note from another elder woman in the congregation. Oy.
The art of the gap is an art religious leaders are encouraged to master. Pause before responding. Don’t give your initial thought, your reaction, but take a deep breath when that elder comes to you in a most in opportune time and take care of them with your response. Be pastoral. Shift your attention to them. Perceive the space, the gap, between the thing said and the thing being communicated. Speak to the thing being communicated. Create a space, a gap, between what you would really like to say if you were just you and not Rabbi You, Pastor You, and what you as Rabbi You says. Say the Pastor You thing. Always taking care.
I was rather good at the art of the gap.
Part of the leaving was that I worried I was a bit too good at it. Always speaking as Pastor Me, I worried that over time I would loose connection with the Me Me. Always taking care, I worried the response before crafting the gap would disappear, in those places where it did exist, and would never even exist in many places.
And what would be so bad about that? The same many-dimensional organization that had shaped me for ministry had also embedded a deep critique in me of the Me-narrative, the selfish orientation. So, on the one had, there is nothing particularly bad about loosing the Me Me, if you hear the Me Me as an expression of the selfish voice. Part of the leaving was that I was breaking through this hearing. I was starting to personally sense that the suppression of this Me Me, before-the-gap-voice for the sake of taking care and being a pastoral presence to others was tied to keeping the institution of Church and Ministry as it had been not as it might be, to keeping me as I had been and not as I might be. And this felt contrary to the Spirit. Still does.
I came out as lesbian while serving my first church. This was a radical big deal for me. It felt simultaneously as the most selfish and most faithful thing I had ever done. It was a big insertion of the Me Me into all conversations.
Outside the church now, I am more willing to offer a blessing at a meal - depending on the context - grateful for the opportunity to practice the noticing and naming of sacredness that drew me to ministry, but I am still suspicious of the art of the gap. I want to be kind and genuine. To make space for people in a conversation, in a space, but to also insert a reaction of my own sometimes. To have a feeling and express it. To say things that are not really wanted in the conversation sometimes. This sounds rather fundamental to human communication. Yes, I do believe it is. But it was not fundamental to the formation and “success” of ministers as I experienced it. Making nice is too much the currency of ministry in congregations. The rather raucous Spirit is not given much room to really speak as she would and make us as we could be not as we have been.