William Blight, who was called Big Willie by his twin sisters Mabel and Maude, approached the pastor and asked if the two could have a conversation, a serious conversation by his strained tone. Rev. Assakus, an affable, portly fellow who had eked out a pittance salary with two dimples and a beaten dog’s jittery vigilance, wasted no time ushering Mr. Blight to the pastor’s study to hear this new complaint.
Complaints were nothing new for the minister; they, in fact, mounted against the minister like a pile of sand. When the complaints piled too high, they naturally slid away from the attention of the congregation, and a fresh batch was dumped on the minister’s shoulders. This was both a blessing and a curse. The fact that new complaints were forgotten so quickly meant that Rev. Assakus’ spirits were never completely broken. But the vacancy created by forgotten complaints amended the congregation’s creativity into taxing new complaints, then stamping different grievances, and then passing the gripes, all of which leveed a toll against the minister with the same unfaltering vitality as the Alpha and Omega. Rev. Assakus had long ago dampened into an exhibit of chronic fatigue, guilt, and impaired concentration.
New complaints came from the change of a liturgical season or a cloudy sky that hinted of sunshine or the pleasant chirping of birds during the pastoral prayer. The first complaint was, of course, the minister’s name. It was considered by many an irreverent name: Assakus – an immediate disqualifying characteristic to the office the bishop had long ago appointed him. What if someone, in a fit of tongue-twisted carelessness slipped and called him Rev. Ass-Kiss? Such an inevitability would be the fault of generations of a people named Assakus. The impropriety. So, many in the congregation christened the pastor Rev. Ask-Us, which bore the every so sly hint of instruction.
Other complaints concerned the books left open in the pastor’s study. Then it was the lamplight burning night and day – the unnecessary expense of wasted electricity. And when Rev. Assakus started turning the light off, he was intentionally creating a security risk. The minister didn’t visit enough, and when he did, he loitered. He offended many in the congregation by being too old, out of touch, and unavailable to the youth; to another group he was inexperienced, naïve, and too charitable for a country parson.
Despite every effort, the reverend could never bring a sense of tranquility to Reflecting Pool Memorial Church, and his members’ cross disposition became a yoke Christ never intended.
Blight sat the reverend down in his office chair and removed from his shirt pocket a crinkled-up sheet of paper. “Well,” he said in a diplomatic voice while he unfolded his reading glasses and straightened the sheet of paper across his leg as though he were starching a shirt, “seems there are a number of folks in the congregation who don’t feel as though you fa-fa-feed them.”
“Feed them?” asked Rev. Assakus
“Yes sir,” William said, “that’s what I wrote down.” This was the second class of complaint. That is, having a complaint delivered via third party – which was really about the most serious kind of complaint Rev. Assakus had ever received. A first-class complaint usually came through the receiving line after worship. These were the most frequent and easily forgettable kind because, as soon as one hand was shaken, another complaint was right behind it. “The sanctuary was a little too drafty today, Rev. Ask-Us. Shame you didn’t think to turn up the heat.” Then, “We missed you at our family reunion Saturday. I know you had Dr. Lexapro’s funeral, but we were hoping you’d had the time to say hello.”
The third-class complaint was rarely, if ever, used. This categorical complaint was when the church made an official grievance against the pastor by having a special committee or church board address the issue. Rev. Assakus’ tenure had yet warranted this level of seriousness. The reason this class of complaint was scarcely used hinged on the congregation’s fear that something might actually be done about the complaint, which was usually the removal of the pastor. Or it was just as likely to cause debate and division within the congregation, or worse, ultimately be shown to be shallow or entirely false. No, unofficially addressing complainers empowered the complaint to fester and morph into other new and more novel complaints; and just as important, it kept the complaint safely on the shoulders of the minister, whose job was to make everyone happy.
“Would they like to come to the parsonage for a meal?” Rev. Assakus groaned to William actually scratching his head trying to figure out what they could possibly mean by not being fed.
“No sir, I don’t believe that is what they mean.” William Blight looked out the pastor’s window for a moment in an effort to marshal the courage to say what came next. Finally, he said, scratching his own head, “I think they mean something, you know, uh, sp-sp-spiritual.” That word nearly choked William Blight, and he only felt compelled to use it since it was specifically written down on his crinkled sheet of paper. As the eldest son of twin sisters, his job was to follow instructions. Talking about spirituality felt too much like talking about your feelings, both of which were, in William’s estimation, unnatural things, effeminate, and to be avoid at all cost. The church gatekeeper of Reflecting Pool, a man whose posterior broke-in many tractor seats and only drank coffee served black, wasn’t effeminate.
“Oh,” Rev. Assakus said leaning back in his office chair, folding his hands together. A temporary sense of relief came over the minister. “Yes, this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but it has always been met with such resistance. What’s changed?”
“So, you know what they want?” asked William Blight.
“Why yes,” Rev. Assakus said with a smile involuntarily sieging his face. He suddenly leaned forward in his office chair. “They are asking to have the Eucharist served weekly rather than quarterly. Why, since Jesus broke the bread and said this is my body, that is how the church has fed its members. Well, you could even say that the manna from heaven, you know, in the wilderness, that was a feeding.” Rev. Assakus felt rejuvenated. Just this fleeting moment he remembered why he went to seminary, the youthful enthusiasm of “hearing the call.”
Blight lowered his chin to absorb the pastor’s newfound ardor and raised his hands to stop the pastor’s speech. “So, you understand what’s being asked of you?” Before the preacher could respond, Blight continued, “You know, this is coming from more than one person. Lots of people, I’m told, are tired,” he stopped and looked down at his crinkled-up note, “tired of not being fa-fa-fed.”
Two or three weeks ago, sometime after the full eclipse, I went with my wife to Southport, North Carolina. It isn’t far from our house, maybe an hour and a half, maybe two hours. And that is how I go places: my wife has a meeting and I tag along and see if there are any good pictures to be found.
It wasn’t exactly a spectacular day. Sure, the cloudy skies were clearing, but it was far too long ago that the sun came over the horizon to take anything resembling a landscape photograph. That’s what we photographer-types want when we go out for the landscape: the blue hour or the golden hour, as they are sometimes called, the time of day when the light is either muted or fresh and crisp. But by the time we arrived at Southport, the sun had bleached the town a chalky, sunglass-needing white.
I pulled up to the waterfront, watched a ferry trudge by, and developed a strategy. At my feet were hundreds of seagulls. So habituated to human beings, walking through the birds was like kicking up piles of leaves. And it occurred to me, as it usually does when there is nothing else to photograph, that I should take pictures of birds. But a thousand seagulls sitting on the ground, even with their contemptuous glances and squawks, would never be an interesting photograph. I needed to make the seagulls do something interesting. But how do you make a seagull do anything?
Rev. Assakus suspended nearly all pastoral duties the week before the sermon he was calling “The Great Feeding.” He departed from his usual lectionary texts and chose Paul’s description of the Eucharist in his letter to the Corinthians. “Flee from the worship of idols,” the passage commenced, and Rev. Assakus started making notes on how proud he was of his congregation for requesting the sacrament weekly. “The turn from idols,” he wrote, “is the turn to Christ, the incarnate Christ shared through the cup and the loaf. The idols of easy worship, the idols of compliancy and soft minds, the idols of beating the Baptists to lunch.” As his pen moved he could hear his voice rise and fall with the cadence of prophesy. Then his sermon made an historical turn with many well-worn quotes from the saints. “I hunger for the bread of God, the flesh of Jesus Christ…I long to drink of his blood,” he quoted St. Ignatius of Antioch. After four days of neglecting shut-ins and hospital visits, after canceling the meagerly attended bible study and postponing the administrative board meeting, and forgetting to return phone calls and scheduling the next Wednesday Night Fellowship on a Tuesday, the minister had composed the greatest sermon on the Eucharist since Wesley or Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Christian Church. He fancied the mentor and protégé, Ambrose and Augustine, lauding his sermon in heaven and passing it around like sliced bread. He started typing and when he was finished, Rev. Assakus held in his hands an eight page, single-spaced sermon. The aftermath was a desk and floor covered with toppled over with books and journals and scrapes of paper and used-up pens. Rev. Assakus felt like a haloed priest.
Next, Rev. Assakus drove hundreds of miles to the nearest large town to buy a new chalice and plate. He bought a new altar cloth and ordered a floral arrangement, which would be placed to the side of the altar. He took his own vestments to the dry cleaner. And instead of serving communion with tiny plastic cups and mail-ordered communion wafers, which he had secretly called Holy Tic-Tacs, Saturday, he learned how to bake bread. He made three test loaves before finally settling on the recipe that would feed his congregation. He reviewed his sermon three last times, made inconsequential adjustments, titled a turn of phrase just so slightly, marked the pacing, and prayed that his congregation would be fed.
In the pulpit Sunday morning, Rev. Assakus towered over his 83 congregants and thundered down his most gifted, albeit meandering, sermon. He exegeted Paul’s text with flamboyant agility. He recited his quotes from the saints and even digressed, spontaneous-like, to explain how an early Christian named Justin had to clarify to non-Christians that they weren’t really cannibals even though they were eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood. Rev. Assakus could feel the heavens tear open and the Spirit of God alighted on him. The season of Epiphany and the day of Pentecost coalesced through his words and issued a sermon befitting a candle-lite upper room – a room that once fed a traitor.
And the congregation responded. They were captivated with this sudden change of personality in the pulpit. A few wondered if he hadn’t slept off completely whatever good time he enjoyed the night before. And when the pastor mentioned that cannibal business and then started talking about the Fountain of Blood, a hymn sung earlier in the service, hands involuntarily covered mouths in silent horror. When the sermon finally concluded, twenty-five minutes later than an average sermon, they were mortified that not only was the service continuing with the Eucharist, but that Rev. Assakus actually expected everyone to dip a piece of homemade bread into a common cup – something the minister called intinction.
After the confession and the great thanksgiving, after the Sanctus and the consecration, and finally after the Lord’s Prayer, Rev. Assakus invited the congregation to come forward as they felt led “to receive and be fed.” The congregation remained fixed in their pews like gargoyles hiding behind spires. The German-married musician who insisted on using her dead husband’s first name thirty years after he had died, Mrs. Knauf Key, started playing – Just As I Am – the only hymn she knew by heart. She watched with great excitement the startled faces. After an entire verse, she just stopped playing and a quiet, eerie silence flooded the sanctuary. Not even the folded bulletins used as fans and coloring books for children made a noise. Rev. Assakus pleaded with the congregation to “Please, come forward,” and gestured with his arms, and gestured with a large circle at Mrs. Knauf Key to keep playing. One by one, the members of Reflecting Pool snuck glances and hints from one another and silently marched forward for this new thing.
There was only one way to make a seagull do anything: get a loaf of bread. I drove back down the main road of Southport, found a convenient store, and bought my bag of tricks. The seagulls hadn’t gone anywhere and as soon as they spied the loaf of bread they assembled around my tripod squawking and nipping. It would be understandable and, perhaps, not far from the truth, to estimate the number of seagulls to be around 5,000. A grackle, so excited to see a loaf of bread, landed on the lens of my camera and thrusted his beak at my hand. If I didn’t hurry up, I was going to be mobbed.
I threw the end piece of bread as far away from my camera as possible. A hurricane-like burst of air was pushed away from the flapping wings, and the varmints dove into the water, fighting and squawking for the appetizer. With just the slightest hint of coaching, I trained the entire flock to hover right before my lens. And after each picture, I rewarded the flying stomachs with a piece of bread. By the time I was done, the mob of birds was ready to make me their king.
Following worship, Rev. Assakus greeted each member through the receiving line with expectations. While complaints were the usual fare at such an occasion, he had anticipated satisfying his own appetite for accolades. But not only did no one complain about anything, no one mentioned the sermon or the Eucharist or the service at all. They seemed to run from worship like children dismissed from school.
After the sanctuary emptied, Rev. Assakus started disrobing his clerical stole and robe and retreated to his office. He no more rounded the corner when he saw William Blight standing outside his office with his twin sisters, Maude and Mabel. Maude, feeling splashy, had dawned a new brooch, with her customary pleated khakis. She always wore pants to church to hide her artificial leg and carried a shoulder bag the size of a small suitcase. Mabel nearly always dressed in a conservative plaid dress that showed she had two real ankles. Perhaps, Rev. Assakus thought to himself, they were pleased and wanted to offer their gratitude in private. Rev. Assakus even indulged a swift fantasy that, maybe, just perhaps, the congregation was so overwhelmed by the sermon and Eucharist they could barely speak exiting the church.
He opened his office door, invited the Blights in, hung up his robe and stole, and sat down.
“What was that?” Maude said, hobbling into the office, clutching her four-pronged cane.
“I thought you talked to him. You said you talked to him. Big Willie, you said so,” Mabel said to her brother in a way that revealed a previous conversation.
“I did. We talked about it la-la-last week,” William Blight said looking at the pastor. “You said you understood what they wanted.”
Rev. Assakus took a moment to register the comments and tone at which each statement was being heaved. “I guess I’m in the dark,” the minister said.
“Well,” Maude said without hiding exasperation, “there’s no denying that. What did you and Big Willie here talk about last week? I want to know what he told you.”
Rev. Assakus looked at William for a moment and then at Maude and Mabel. “Why, he told me that the congregation wanted to celebrate the Eucharist more often.”
“Oh, is that what he told you,” Mabel said looking at Big Willie, whose eyes were busy finding interesting patterns in the carpet and rubbing his calloused palms together.
“Rev. Ask-Us,” Maude said with a distinctly more congenial tone, “what we want is to be fed.” She placed her hand on her heart and looked at the minister with encouraged tears. “I know you try; we all know you try your best.”
“Yes,” Mabel said. “We know. And you’re such a good pastor to the shut-ins.”
“But we want a preacher like Dr. Saul Isaiah,” Maude said pulling out a book from her shoulder bag. She pushed the book into Rev. Assakus’ face. The slick, lime green book was titled, “On Purpose: The Greatest YOU!”
“The TV preacher?” asked Rev. Assakus, pushing the book away from his face.
“Oh, he’s not just a TV preacher. He’s a biblical scholar and a teacher and, why, he’s written God only knows how many books,” said Mabel.
“And he’s so nice looking and enjoyable to listen to,” Maude said. “That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about being fed. He feeds us.”
“I guess I’m a little confused,” confessed the pastor. “When you say he feeds you, what exactly do you mean?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Maude. “I guess what we’re trying to say is that we feel like we come away from his television services feeling something. He makes us feel so important.”
“Yes, that’s it,” Mabel said as though her sister’s statement were a revelation. “He’s so insightful. And he’s been to the Holy Land. Goes there all the time. Takes people on tours and everything. And he brings back water from the Jordan River and uses it to sprinkle on people for healings.”
At this point in the conversation, Rev. Assakus could have informed the Blight twins that their television preacher was more celebrity than minister. He could have told them that Dr. Saul Isaiah didn’t really write all those books or sermons with his name attached to them. He could have told them that the TV minister was more interested in power than prayer, and they were more captivated by personality than spirituality. But he couldn’t say any of those things because they didn’t occur to him. He couldn’t even tell them the truth, which was they had little desire to be spiritual nourished, because that obvious truth hadn’t occurred to him either. What the Blight twins really wanted was ego-tickling entertainment.
Rev. Assakus heard another truth. The unspoken truth. The truth hiding in plain sight in this new complaint. You’ll never be good enough for us. We will be impossible to satisfy. Be for us someone you are not.
“What would you have me do?” he asked the ladies.
“Oh, Rev. Ask-Us,” Mabel said, noticing the pastor’s sense of defeat, “you’re a sweet, sweet man. We just want you to move us,” she said with a kick. “You know, make us glow,” she said kicking her leg in front of her sister’s missing leg, again. “You know, make us believe more. That’s what we mean by feed us.”
Maude just blurted out, “You’ll never be much of a preacher if you can’t make us believe.”
William Blight decided the conversation had gone on too long. Rev. Assakus had been beaten up too much. And William didn’t even understand what his sisters were talking about. He tugged on a Maude’s sleeve saying, “You’ve given the reverend p-p-plenty to think about.”
But a flash of inspiration came over the minister. It was as though he finally realized he had nothing left to lose, that the cross was behind him, the books and notes and underlined thoughts of all the saints of the Church Triumphant ushered Rev. Assakus out of the tomb and into daylight. Before he could think of the consequences, he just coughed up his second sermon of the morning, and as he spoke he lifted himself out of his chair and planted the palms of his hands on his desk in defiance of the Reflecting Pool’s misplaced spiritual ambitions. Maybe it was the acoustics in the reverend’s office that caused his voice to pulse from above with an authority and unimpeachable dignity. And as he spoke the Blight sisters grappled with a type of facial paralyses and heart palpitations never before experienced, and Maude had phantom pains shooting through her missing leg, and even Big Willie felt a wink of fear.
“Maude, I can’t make you believe,” the preacher said. “Mabel, No one can make you believe. And that’s not what church is about anyway. Pastors don’t climb in the pulpit to play ‘make believe.’ This isn’t about fairy tales or feel-good-sentiments. I’m not here to scratch itching ears. If you two want to feel better about yourself, if you need more self-confidence or serenity, get a therapist. I can recommend a good one. But that’s not what church is about."
"I preach every Sunday in the hopes that should one day you find belief, should you one day understand the gospel, you’ll have someplace to put it, someplace to plant it, to root it in your soul and be nourished. But I can’t work your miracle. I can’t mature you beyond your own saccharine inclinations.”
Rev. Assakus paused for a moment and noticed he was standing. He sat back down in his chair and finished his thought, “Jesus said, ‘This is my body and this is my blood.’ If that isn’t enough for you then there’s not a spiritual buffet that will satisfy your appetite. But if you feel fed watching a TV preacher and reading his 7-step, pop-up book, by all means, pass the bag of chips around, get yourself some Coke-Cola and peanuts. Gorge yourself with spirituality’s hip-hop, gameshow, pop culture. You can score each sermon like they do on those singing and dancing shows.”
Mabel and Maude said together, “Have you ever?” and covered their chests with their hands.
William Blight looked at the pastor with a flash of disgust, and said, “We’ll debate this at the next administrative board meeting, Reverend.”
The pastor’s study shook with the slamming of the door, and the calm and quiet that followed became a sort of paradise Rev. Assakus never had to leave.
I retreated from the seagulls, and having no more bread, they didn’t follow me. I drove along the waterfront looking for more birds when I found a stack of pelicans huddled around some boats. I parked the car, attached my telephoto lens, and slowly crept up on the pelicans. Much to my surprise, the pelicans were just like the seagulls who were completely indifferent or a little put out by my arrival. But, also like the seagulls, they weren’t shy and made no effort to fly away.
I rounded the corner of a building and discovered why the pelicans were so comfortable. A man, half-clad in a bright, yellow slicker, filleted a grouper and tossed the skeletal remains in the water behind him. The pelicans plunged from the pylons jabbing the water and each other fighting over the fish’s remains. And then another fish was tossed and another fight commenced. This went on and on, so long that I felt I had outstayed my welcome and drove away.
I was so excited to have pictures of actual hungry pelicans. But then it occurred to me that these pelicans were really no different than the lazy seagulls by the waterfront. They are lazy, hand-me-out birds who could be out hunting for a living but have instead chosen to work the system and live off the charity of others. Now, I know. I know. I’m being judgmental. God only knows what personal travesties have befallen each seagull and pelican that have so crippled their hunting prowess and bird-esteem that they avail themselves to benevolence rather than toil. But The Hungry Pelican (the blog you are reading – if this can be called a blog at all) isn’t about these kinds of hungry pelicans.
Hand-me-out spirituality is lazy. It fails to move because it lives in a pretend world. It is junk food spirituality.
The Hungry Pelican is about the bird whose young are so hungry it will pierce its own breast with its beak to feed its young on blood. Real spiritual nourishment involves the admission of pain, digging, self-penetrating agony. Spirituality is about work, relentless self-investigation, revealing your brokenness to the world. And we do this not in the hopes of some anesthetizing placebo, but for the real presence of Christ who shares our pain and hurt; the Christ who allowed his breast to be jabbed that we might be fed. The Christ who doesn’t so much fix us as much as he is broken with us.
“This is my body,” Christ says to us.
And we can respond by saying, “This is my body, too.”
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