"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Friday, June 04, 2004 When I think about what it truly means to be a priest, I realize how rich my life has been because of the many and amazing priests God has blessed my life with who have formed not just my answer to that question but have formed me.
The names are literally too many to mention, because I would leave someone out. There have been priests I have only met briefly and some I have not met at all that have done this shaping. But when I think of who the archetypal priest is for me, the priest I would most like to be like, the priest of whom I would be thrilled if at the end of my days I could say that I was half as good as, well, it's no contest.
It's Jim Fallis.
I've known Jim for almost 18 years, but it goes far beyond that. When Robin was a baby, Jim, then an assistant at St. Paul's, Indianapolis, baptized her. He was the young priest that Harold Harness, senior warden at St. Paul's and patriarch of Robin's family, took under his wing. Jim became the family priest. Years later, he buried Harold and held the family as they walked through that time that I only hear about in story.
What Jim taught me about priesthood isn't so much something I can put into words -- mostly because he never talked about it. He just lived it. The best I can describe it is as being an open conduit. I first met him when I went to school at Mizzou and he was rector of Calvary, Columbia. For him being priest was not just about dealing with the people who came in his church on Sunday morning, it was about being a presence -- God's presence -- in the whole community.
Lots of people came to Calvary -- many drawn by Jim -- but everyone knew Jim, because he was out there getting to know and loving them. He didn't "talk to them about Jesus" ... he just acted like Jesus, genuinely caring about people's lives, speaking up when there was a social injustice that needed something done, honoring people enough to let them make up their own minds about things and realizing that he could learn from them.
Jim was rector of Calvary, Columbia, but he was also priest at Booche's and Columbia Billiards, the two taverns across the street, and at the many golf courses around town that he and his son, Bennet, blistered on a regular basis. He wasn't this way because of some grand strategy of congregational development ... he was this way because he just let God love people through him, he treated every person with honor and respect -- and he showed that being a Christian and a human being is about living with integrity, love and humor.
Jim knew that the conventional wisdom about not being able to be someone's priest and friend at the same time, was, while based in some sage cautionary counsel, on the whole a load of crap. He was a priest by being a friend. And his friendships allowed him to be a priest in incredibly powerful ways.
And you can't talk about Jim without pointing out that he was a Cubs fan ... and that defined and described him more than anything. For being a Cubs fan is about faith and hope where logic says there shouldn't be. It's about having optimism meet realism in painful ways and persevering through it. It's about being able to feel pain keenly but still approaching life with a wicked sense of humor ... and an appreciation that God has a wicked sense of humor, too.
Testimonials like this usually don't come out of the blue ... usually that come when something bad has happened ... and that's mostly true here.
Bishop Smith called me yesterday morning to tell me that Jim had had a massive heart attack or stroke and been in a car accident and was now in a coma. Throughout the day, as I learned more from people and, finally, as I made it to Columbia and to his bedside, I learned that his prognosis for recovery is very grim. He is being kept alive by a respirator. Most telling is that when you talk to him and squeeze his hand, there is no response. Never in his life has anyone been able to say that about Jim.
Barring something remarkable and, frankly, miraculous, happening, in the next day or so his family will have to be making decisions about the end of Jim's life. So, yes, it is really bad. But there was something amazing about yesterday, too.
I spent much of yesterday on the phone, trying to contact anyone whom I thought needed to know about this. And there are so many people. I talked with Lance Robbins, another priest who has been huge in forming my priesthood, but who I don't think I've talked to for five or six years. I talked with clergy and laity, with Robin's mom and aunts, with so many people.
And when I talked with them, almost all of them started telling stories about Jim. That's not unusual ... when you find out someone is dying, you tell stories. But these stories all had a similar theme: Jim Fallis changed my life.
And the other interesting theme was this ... that the way Jim changed lives was not through anything huge and flashy, but through a word at the right time, being present when they needed desparately for someone just to be there, through just simple, honest, authentic love and honor.
After I left the hospital ... after I had, I knew, said my goodbyes to Jim, I went over to Calvary to say a prayer and then wandered over to Booches to do the one thing that felt right to do for Jim ... to drink a beer in his honor. And as I was sitting down, one of the bartenders came over to me and asked me if I was with the Episcopal church ... and then he asked me about Jim. When I told him it didn't look good, his eyes filled with tears and he started telling me his Jim stories. I mean, I'm just standing there in this pub with a beer, and this total stranger, unsolicited comes up to me and starts talking to me about Jim and the deep effect he had on his life.
We drank that toast to Jim together. I drank it in thanksgiving for an amazing life that I have been blessed to have touch mine and my family's. I drank it for the priest who, as much as anyone, has shown me what my priesthood can be. I drank it for my friend who was also my priest. For the guy who would bring his glove and ball to the office on February 15 because pitchers and catchers were reporting in Mesa. My friend who never kept an "appropriate, professional distance" when I was in crisis, but got down in there with me. The priest who baptized my wife, celebrated Eucharist at our wedding and tried to straighten out my golf swing.
It wasn't a long toast. Just two words. The only words it seemed appropriate to say to Jim and to God.
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"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."