Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The President or the Court Jester?

My certificate for serving as guest chaplain, signed by the Speaker of the House

Three weeks ago today, I stood at a podium directly in front of Speaker John Boehner and his startlingly loud gavel, and offered the opening prayer for the day in the House of Representatives. They stationed me next to the podium a few minutes before the session started, and told me to avoid the temptation to look behind me when the Speaker, the Parliamentarian, and a few others marched in the door. "Instead," they said, "just keep looking at the CSPAN cameras."

After I prayed my 127 word prayer, vetted by the House Chaplain's office a week before, I sat down on the floor, in a Congressman's seat, while my representative, David Dreier, chairman of the eminent Rules committee, introduced me. While he was talking, the Chaplain came and sat down next to me and whispered, "The podium that you just prayed at? That's the same podium that the President stands at to give the State of the Union. The only people who ever use that podium are the chaplains and the President. We don't tell guest chaplains that until after they pray, so as not to intimidate them."

Chairman Dreier waved a copy of Introverts in the Church as he talked, and he submitted a list of all my writings into the Congressional Record for the day. The writings of Adam S. McHugh are now officially part of the Library of Congress.

I started writing this post last week at the site of one of my greatest humiliations in ministry. 6 years ago I was invited to speak at a church while the pastor was on vacation. It was Father's Day and the crowd was sparse. The senior pastor had been present at my ordination 6 months earlier, and had been impressed with me. He also loved one of the songs that I chose for worship that day, "In Christ Alone." Unfortunately, his congregation was not familiar with the song, and there was no worship leader to help. So, for about 5 minutes we all sat together and listened to the organist play it. And repeat it. If I were Jesus I might have stayed in the tomb and waited for another service to burst forth in glorious day.

I stood up to preach. Normally, as a college pastor at the time, I preached in jeans and flip flops, but I had broken out a shiny new suit for the occasion. I had chosen evangelism as my topic, with the approval of the senior pastor. About 4 minutes into my sermon, I realized that no one was laughing at any of my funny lines. In fact, no one was nodding along, or had their heads cocked in a thoughtful pose, or well, seemed to be alive in any way. I had 20 more minutes left in my sermon. At about the 10 minute mark, I found myself speaker faster and monotone. At the 15 minute mark, I felt like I might start crying. I really had no idea what I was even saying at that point. I finished the sermon, that I had timed to 25 minutes that morning, in 18 minutes.

After the service, not one person came up to thank me or greet me in any way. I stood there, by myself, for 5 or 6 of the loneliest moments of my life, and then started to make my way to my car. An older woman stopped me by the fellowship hall and invited me to join them for coffee. I said thanks, I'll be there in a moment after I put my sermon in my car. I got to my car, placed my sermon on the passenger seat, sat down for about 20 seconds to breathe, then put the key in the ignition and got the hell out of there.

On the drive home, I came up with a line I used in my book a few years later: I felt like the court jester performing for an audience that just pushed away from Thanksgiving dinner.

Last week there was a presbytery meeting at that church, and I was invited to display my book out front so people could talk about it with me and have copies signed. For the hour before the meeting that I stood there, one person picked up a copy of my book, smiled at me, glanced over the back cover, and put it down again.

I hate that church.


What's strange is that I have no problem sharing the second story with you, but I am afraid the first story will make me seem ego-driven and full of myself. But both of them are authentically me. I am the guy who prayed from the State-of-the-Union podium and I am the guy who made an ass out of himself at an old, rickety podium. Why is it easier for me to imagine the true backdrop of my ministry as failure rather than success?  Why does it feel sometimes like the "real" Adam McHugh deserves to be up in front of that old, glassy-eyed church, juggling and tripping over myself, but any successes I have feel like accidents, out-of-body departures from where I truly belong?

It's not humility, that's for sure. Too often we use that word in church to cover up self-hatred, which is actually the opposite of humility. We wave off success as "all God, not me" slowly diminishing ourselves into non-existence, which is actually the opposite of the life and life abundant that Jesus is working into us.  

Where are you in your life and ministry? Are you standing at the State of the Union podium or are you the court jester making a fool of yourself? And if you are the jester, are you there because you think you belong there?