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…


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.”

A quick Introduction

Pop Culture factoids fill half my brain, Theology the other….oh, and my kid’s gymnastics schedule is in there some where.  I love Jesus, my family, my work, movies, tv, theater, and art. And I cuss a lot — try not to be offended.

I’ve been working on this blog idea for a while and have some TWD related posts ready to go, but when I woke up this morning, the need to acknowledge the life of Alan Rickman was just too strong. It couldn’t wait.  So….here we go…..

By the by, you can find me on Twitter and instagram under the name @revlkrm

If you’re ever in town and looking for a progressive, inclusive Christian church  — we’re it.  I’m the pastor of Community United Church of Christ, located in the heart of the campus of the University of Illinois. Check us out at http://www.community-ucc.org.  You can also get a sense of the denomination in which I serve, the United Church of Christ, at http://www.ucc.org.

Rest in Peace, Voice of God: Remembering Alan Rickman

Well, this was not the first installment I planned to post to Pop Culture Preacher. Not at all.  But that’s what happens when you wake up to sad news from across the pond.  Alan Rickman has died.  Rest in true peace, sir.

For many of you, Mr. Rickman will forever be Snape from Harry Potter, always, ALWAYS reminding us of the complicated nature of relationships and the complexity of good and evil – how there’s a vast variety of points in between.  Likewise, every December, many of you will delight in Mr. Rickman’s charm while cursing the infidelity of his character Harry from Love Actually.  I mean, really, how dare you cheat on our beloved Emma Thompson!

As for me, I’ll be keeping vigil with the movie Dogma.  Alan Rickman played Metatron, The Voice of God, in that fourth film of writer/director Kevin Smith.  That scene where Bethany runs full on into a muddy pond, flailing her arms, and shrieking, “What do you want from me?”– that’s me.  I’m the girl called by God who, quite often, wonders what the fuck my Creator wants me to do and be in this world. While in Seminary earning my Masters of Divinity degree (as if we really ever master Divinity…) and working my way toward ordination in the United Church of Christ, I watched that Kevin Smith film a lot.  A whole lot.  Sometimes weekly.  When I didn’t think I could do it and think theologically enough to make it, or when the depression I was battling threatened to pull me under, or when I just wanted to go do something else with my talents, I would pray about it, and then watch Dogma.  When I watched the planes hit the Twin Towers at the start of my second year of seminary, thinking, first, “Why? God…GOD?!? WHY!?!” and then, “Oh, shit.  Any time this kind of thing happens, I am going to be one of those people who must give voice to meaning, to Hope beyond shattered hope….I don’t know if I can do that.” Then, as the freak out ceased, I prayed about it and watched Dogma.

When I saw myself, reflected in the character of Bethany as played by Linda Fiorentino, pissed off at God for something that probably wasn’t God’s fault to begin with, and holding a grudge accordingly, the Voice of God, cleverly and gently embodied by Alan Rickman would ring in my ears. “Don’t allow eons of history and life to be blinked out of being just because you have a grudge with your Creator!”

When I recognized myself in Bethany, doubting my call and wanting, desperately, to just be a “normal” person instead of a “clergy” person, someone set apart for ministry, wanting to run my hopeless self far away from it all, I would often mumble, “I don’t want this… it’s too big…” right along with her. And Rickman’s Voice of God, like the call and response in prayer, would sound again, “This… is who you are….knowing who you are now, doesn’t mean you aren’t who you were. You are Bethany Sloan!” In other words, you’re still you, Leah…and you can still be you and be a pastor, too. “No one can take that away from you, not even God! … All this means is a redefinition of that identity- the incorporation of this new data into who you are. Be who you’ve always been. Just… be this as well…”

So, here I am – still who I am and a clergy person, too.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that these words, written by Kevin Smith, and spoken by the Alan Rickman, saved me.  That would not be an exaggeration at all.

As a pastor, each time I look into a person’s eyes and remind them that they are worth a life — they are loved and beloved, and each time I speak words of hope over and against hatred, violence, indifference, and the greed found in this world, and each time I shepherd grief-stricken people through the valley of the shadow of a death of a loved one, and each time I say to someone who’s wandered into my church’s building because of the rainbow flags we fly and tell them that God DOES NOT hate them because they’re gay – in fact God dearly loves them, each time I do anything transformative, by the grace of God as a clergy person, and I hear some reassurance from on high that I’m being who I’m called to be, supposed to be, and was made to be in this world, that reassurance sounds an awful lot like the voice of Alan Rickman. Thanks for playing Metatron, sir. I’m so very grateful that you did.

Blessings, y’all…PopCulturePreacher