Saturday, June 11, 2016

Devotion of Body, Soul, and Spirit: A Tribute to the Rev. Lauren Ackland

“Devotion of Body, Soul, and Spirit: A Tribute to the Rev. Lauren Ackland”
June 11, 2016

            Well, it’s certainly a great honor to have been invited to speak at this spectacular occasion, to honor Lauren and George who have been mentors and friends for Sue and me – and who mean so much to us all.
            For the record, I will say, that I’ve been given very little direction on what to say this evening.
            In fact, my friend, Grace Church Senior Warden John Garde gave me just one request: “Keep it light.”
            “Keep it light,” he said.
            But, it’s not so easy to keep it light since this is, for sure, a bittersweet event, right?
            So, like many of you, when I need uplift and inspiration, I look to
            And, what do you know? While we’re here honoring Lauren, over in Britain they’re having a big party to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday!
            And, I don’t need to tell you Anglophiles that this is her official birthday – her real birthday was back in April.
            But, I digress.
            I mention the Queen because, setting aside the very great age gap and the obvious lifestyle differences, Lauren has always reminded me a bit of the Queen.
            Don’t laugh. Stick with me. I don’t want to push this too hard, but I think I’m going to make the case.
            After all, they are both women who have served so well for so long that, honestly, it’s difficult for many of us to imagine someone else in their place.
            They have both been icons of stability during changing times.
            Back on her 21st birthday, then-Princess Elizabeth made a famous speech declaring that her whole life, whether long or short, would be devoted to service.
            And, Lauren has made that same promise several times in her life – both times when she was ordained – and, of course, twenty years ago when she became Rector of Grace Church.
            At that celebration of new ministry, reading the words in the Prayer Book, Lauren made the following pledge to God: “To you and your service I devote myself, body, soul, and spirit.”
            And, whatever you might think about the Queen, there can be no disagreement that Lauren has worked oh so very hard to keep her big promise to God. Day in and day out, year after year, Lauren has devoted herself – given her body, soul, and spirit, in service to God and God’s people.
            Just look around – look around at how many of us have been touched by her life and ministry!
            Now, I’m sure it would be easy to get kind of full of yourself if you’re the Queen – people bowing and curtseying all the time, “Your Majesty,” the fancy outfits, and all the rest of it.
            And, I can imagine, that it might be easy to get full of yourself as a priest  - and especially as Rector of one of the most prominent churches in this diocese, a wonderful church with more people and more ministry and, yes, more money, than most.
            Yet, despite all the royal splendor, I’ve always sensed a basic humility and simplicity in the Queen – and you and I both know that Lauren has led Grace Church and lives her life with humility, modesty and simplicity.
            It’s never been about her.
            Didn’t have to be that way. It could’ve all gone to her head!
            After all, at Grace, she has gotten to wear some pretty fancy outfits – the beautiful vestments made from Larry Taber’s curtains come especially to mind – lots of people call her “Mother,” and, unlike the Queen, as Rector she has real power, she’s no figurehead, but she has led the church very much as what the bishop often calls her, a “team player,” working closely with wardens, vestry, and staff.
             And, in her everyday life she lives simply (she’d say she’s just cheap) – so no flashy cars or fancy clothes or frequent and exotic vacations for her – or George.
            Actually, most of you know that it’s been a minor miracle whenever they’ve even taken a real vacation!
            And a sabbatical? What’s a sabbatical?
            Something else both the Queen and Lauren share in common: husbands with, yes, let’s say quirky senses of humor, but husbands who have loyally supported them and their work, sacrificing at least some of their own interests and ambitions, and certainly sacrificing much of their time, over all these years.
            It’s been often noted, including, it must be said, by George Hayman himself, that in many ways George is a traditional clergy spouse, devoting much of his life to Grace Church – the choir, the altar guild, worship leader, men’s group, helping with publications – plus lots of other work for the diocese – all the while serving as trusted confidante and sounding board for Lauren – and, maybe most important of all, making her laugh a lot.
            It’s hard to imagine that Lauren could have had such a rich and successful ministry at Grace without George at her side.
            And, while I’m sure that lots of people at Grace already realize that they’re going to really miss Lauren, they may not yet fully appreciate just how much they’ll miss George.
            So, what do you think, have I convinced you yet about the similarities between these two, the Queen and Lauren?
            All right, a little more.
            It’s hard to know the Queen’s personality but she strikes me as an essentially private and shy person who plays a very public role – a public role that requires her to interact with all different kinds of people. Not easy.
            And, I’d say that Lauren is also an essentially private and shy person (you’re really enjoying all the attention tonight, right, Lauren?) she’s a private and shy person who also plays a very public role, requiring her to interact with all different kinds of people.
            In fact, this is something about Lauren that is under-appreciated: she is able to talk with anybody.
            Maybe because of her time in the city, she is able to talk easily with the wealthy and famous. I remember one time Charles Scribner III came to visit Grace Church and while I was feeling tongue-tied and thinking about my new six degrees of separation with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, she talked with “Charlie” just as comfortably as she might with any parishioner.
            And, she is equally at ease talking with people in the midst of crisis, couples hoping to marry, teenagers, Sunday School kids, hungry people at her door looking for help, and residents of the Pine Acres nursing home. All of them. It’s really remarkable – and one of the secrets of her extraordinary success.
            OK, one last thing about the Queen and Lauren: they’re signed up for life.
            Yes, it’s true that next Sunday afternoon, Lauren will ceremonially hand back the keys of the church (you’re really gonna do it, right?) and her time, this amazing time, as Rector of Grace Church will come to an end.
            Someday soon she’ll head off to her “Balmoral” in South Orange and retire.
            Sort of.
            First of all, I know for a fact that there are several priests in this diocese – maybe even some here tonight – who are quite actively lobbying Lauren to come and assist at their churches.
            Who can blame them, right?
            After all, here you have an outstanding and experienced priest suddenly available to help with preaching, teaching, and pastoral care, you name it.
            Now, I really shouldn’t say this, and I don’t want to embarrass anybody or make any of my colleagues mad, so I’m not going to get into the specifics, but I’ve told Lauren that most of these churches just really aren’t the right fit for her and for her skills.
            But…there is one, a church right in the heart of one of our big cities, where I’m sure she’d fit right in since I – I mean, the rector of that church – has stolen just about every idea from Lauren and Grace Church and plugged it into his place!
            Lauren, you still want a Last Chance Mass? You’re in luck!
            How blessed I am to have learned from – and stolen from - the best.
            So, I’m hopeful!
            But, you know, in all seriousness, in a profound sense, it doesn’t matter so much what exactly Lauren decides to do or not do in retirement.
            One of my other mentors was a priest named Frank Carr who was rector of St. Paul’s Jersey City back in the 70s and 80s.
            I didn’t know him back then, only becoming friends long after he had retired.
            And, one thing I remember about him is he’d never fail to correct people when they referred to him or one of his buddies as a “retired priest.”
            He’d bellow, “Priest, retired!”
            It may seem like a minor point but it was important to him, and it is important.
            It’s important because he, like Lauren, like all of us in ordained ministry, made a sacred promise to God, to devote ourselves body, soul, and spirit to God and God’s people – and that promise is not limited to a particular job or place or time.
            It’s a promise for life.
            And, we all fall short, but I’ve never known anyone to keep that sacred promise more faithfully than Lauren Ackland, a priest, a priest forever.