A Hot Mess: Seeing Myself in Father Gabriel

“You play a bad priest so well,” I said to Seth Gilliam, the actor who plays Father Gabriel on AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead.’  “Father Gabriel is a hot mess! Good job!”

Mr. Gilliam smiled.  “Yes, he is.  He is a hot mess.”

Thank you, dear eight pound, six ounce baby Jesus that Mr. Gilliam *did* smile.  The last thing I want to do is offend this gifted actor.  I meant my comment as an absolute compliment. Mr. Gilliam’s  nuanced portrayal of the fumbling Father often elicits visceral reactions from me: I yell at the tv…a lot.  When we found out he hoarded all the canned goods, I bellowed, “Have you forgotten the story of the manna?!?” When Father Gabriel says to Rick, “The wine’s just wine until it’s blessed,” I grunted “Have you forgotten that in the Beginning God called it ALL good?” GAH!  As a clergy person, Father Gabriel drives me batty.

It’s when I turn off the tv and get back to real life that I realize why: Father Gabriel has forgotten who and Whose he is. He is a hot mess, and if I’m being honest here, this pretend pastor gets a rise out of me because I, too, have been a hot mess of a pastor more than once during my 12 year career.  We all have.

Clergy friends, can I get an “Amen”?

We’re just human, like everyone else, and Seth Gilliam’s Father Gabriel reminds me of that every time I watch.

When we first meet Father Gabriel, he’s up on a rock, all alone, isolated from everyone, surrounded by walkers snapping their jaws. To me, that big rock looked like the place in society where clergy are often placed: up on a pedestal. Ordained clergy are “set apart for special service,” but often times, being “set apart” gets misunderstood. Often, church folk, and non-church folk alike, want pastors to be strong and wise and have all the answers. We want pastors and priests to say all the right things, at all the right times, to kindly remind us we’re loved and beloved, while also speaking truth to power. We want them to care for the widow and the orphan, and be the vanguard of the marginalized, all while not offending any one. We want them to be like Jesus – the nice version of Jesus we’ve cherry-picked from scripture. We want pastors and priests to be perfect.

God forbid our pastors ever, actually, be human beings.

A couple of days ago, I ran into new congregants of mine out for lunch with friends. “Looks like you had a great birthday!” they said, commenting on my social media pics from Walker Stalker Chicago. “We loved seeing your pictures with all those people from the zombie show.” They turned to their friends and explained, “She loves ‘The Walking Dead.’”

One of the friends raised an eye brow, “I hope you’re stronger than Father Gabriel.”

I’ve only just met this person and already I’m up on that rock as clergy-walker-bait.

“To be fair,” I said, “I think we’d all be a hot mess in the zombie apocalypse, don’t you?” The truth is, whereas the zombie apocalypse hasn’t struck yet, we all (clergy and laity alike) have experienced our own personal apocalypses: betrayal by those intimate with us, death of loved ones, financial catastrophe, loss of work, feelings of insecurity, depression, frustrations with family and friends and children, health crises, addictions, grief, and other gut-wrenching tragedies all amidst the daily grind of life. And even though my colleague, the Rev. Elizabeth Dilley, likes to describe me as “the one who would win if there was such a thing as ‘Pastors Fight Club’” the truth is, I’m not always a badass. I’m not always stronger than Father Gabriel.  I’m not always confident or sure of myself, and I do not get it right all the time. Far from it.

I’m human and I’m a pastor and God knows those two things are hard to hold together.

After the birth of my eldest daughter I found myself isolated, with the jaws of postpartum depression (PPD) snapping at me left and right. I felt like Father Gabriel in his inaugural moment: up on a rock, all by myself, helpless, and terrified. As a clergy person watching that scene, remembering the personal apocalypse that was my PPD, when my whole world fell apart and I had to find a way to just survive somehow, I saw that rock he found himself on in a different way. It was like the pedestal we’re often put up on as clergy which I had internalized. I remember being so afraid of what people would think of me as a clergyperson when I realized I had PPD. “But I’m The Pastor. I’m not supposed to be the one who needs help. I’m supposed to be the one who helps other people.”  PPD threatened to consume me, but so did the unrealistic expectations with which clergy are so often saddled, which I had swallowed whole.

God forbid we allow ourselves as pastors to actually be human.

Thank God somebody showed up before I got consumed by it all. My friend Katie put her own newborn baby in the car, told her husband she’d be back (but I didn’t know when), then drove six hours north to be with me, and spent weeks with us during my leave of absence from church. Katie T., who has known me since I was 16 and is also a clergyperson, knows me without all the pretense – she’d never put me up on a pedestal, and yet, because she’s also a Pastor, she’s often found herself up there, too.  She, and a PPD therapist, helped me climb down from that precarious position.  That which threatened to consume me, both the depression and my own outlandish expectations, lost their bite.  I came down off the rock of isolation and remembered who and Whose I really am – Leah, beloved child of God, wife, lover, mother, daughter, friend, and soul-sister who struggles with health and wellness just like anyone. I am a pastor, an ally, an artist, a writer, member of the creative class, and yes, an avid fan of the Walking Dead.

I am a messy human being, with all the complicated characteristics that make us who we are.  Thank God.

Maybe Father Gabriel isn’t such a bad priest after all.  Maybe he’s just forgotten who he is – who doesn’t when their world falls apart – and I put him up there on a pedestal like so often happens to me.  So, Father Gabriel, and all you real pastors and priests out there, you can be a hot mess and still be a good clergy person – remember who and Whose you are: a human being whose set apart.  Remember that and you’ll find yourself again.

Blessings, y’all…

PopCulturePreacher

P.S. This post was also inspired by going to Clergy Boundary Training this week, and pastors, you know what that’s all about.  If you do find yourself up there on that rock with some nasty thing or another nipping at your heels, call a colleague.  Call your therapist.  Talk to your Spiritual Director.  Take an extra day off.  Take care of yourself.  As Parker Palmer says, “Self care is never a selfish act.”

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