As a priest, I am paid to be optimistic. The Gospel of Jesus Christ offers us hope in the face of discouragement, new life on a daily basis, continual transformation. With God, nothing is impossible. So, as I am engaging the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a professional minister, I am paid to be optimistic.
Optimism fits my personality type. I’m achievement and goal oriented and I am always trying to figure out how things could be improved. How things could be is really more important to me than how they are right now. In a way my personality type discounts the present and could be considered pessimistic. I never really think that what is going on right now is quite good enough. But I always think things are going to get better, that the struggles of today are going to be changed into the joys of tomorrow. Optimism, for me, is an attitude about the future.
A major reason that the Christian faith has held steady for me over the years is its optimistic view. But the Christian faith also shares my pessimism about the present. People are sinful, the gospel proclaims, but God is good and God is redeeming the world. The Christian gospel doesn’t gloss over human sinfulness. It says right out there that life is hard, that left to our own devices we would destroy ourselves, that people cannot handle life on their own no matter how hard they try. That pessimistic view of people and the present time sets the stage for the dramatically optimistic view of what God is doing for and with us. The Christian gospel is one of sin and redemption: we are sinful and God is redeeming us. The Christian gospel is not a tool for self-improvement.
My life changed pretty dramatically 25 years ago. I walked into St. John’s during the search process that called me here and something started shifting in my heart. I was inspired by the space. While the space awakened something inside me, I was also going through a pretty dramatic transformation in my approach to being a priest. Prior to coming to St. John’s, I felt pretty driven and carried tremendous pressure to perform at a certain standard. That drive has never gone away but, as I began serving here as your rector, that drive began to be accompanied by a sense of calmness. A clear voice told me to trust and just do my part. “You don’t have to do it all, Robert. I have been working in this place long before you got here and I’ll be working here long after you leave.” Immediately I began to deepen in my trust of God and came into my own as a priest of the church. This place drew out my gifts. Even more, this place deepened my faith. Before coming here, I really only knew that I needed to work hard. At St. John’s I learned to work hard on my little part and trust that lots of other little parts were being added. My ego softened and I began to notice God’s abiding presence.
For that reason, it’s never been very hard to be optimistic about this place. There are tremendous resources that St. John’s can bring to bear. There are delightful challenges and opportunities, unlimited potential, and spiritual depth. We’re really only limited by our imagination. If we can think of it, we can do it. But that potential rests in the spirit that holds this place together. It is clear to all of us here that St. John’s is more than any one of us. Not a single one of us owns this place or controls it. It is much bigger than any one of us. We all have a part to play but God is holding it all together.
While I have always felt very optimistic about St. John’s, I have never felt more hopeful about things than I do right now. The Search Committee conducted an inspired search. They were attentive and expectant all the way. Despite all odds they were able to stay on schedule. They attracted wonderfully talented priests. And they have selected John Leach, someone who seems to be a perfect fit. People have been asking me how I feel as I get ready to retire. “Content” and “excited” are the two words that keep coming to mind. I am content about all that has gone on here. And I am so very excited about what is to come in this next step. God is saying to me again very clearly: “I was here a long time before you got here and I’ll be around long after you’re gone.”
This past year has been an important one in our relationship with each other. We have practiced saying goodbye. We have continued to go about the business and ministry of the parish. We have been pointing to the future and have begun letting go of each other. We have held each other lightly and appreciatively.
As Mary Ward and I step away from St. John’s, we are so deeply grateful to you for your generosity over the years. You have let us into your lives and shared your joys and sorrows. As my own faith took a huge step in my coming here, it is now taking another huge step as I leave you. The challenge ahead of me now is to live without so many goals of production. Many are asking what I am going to do. The real challenge for me now is to acknowledge that my value in the world is not attached to producing something. I came here with a lot of drive and I leave with that same drive but I feel God is inviting me to consider something other than getting stuff done. The opportunity is to discover who I really am as a child of God apart from my work.
The great challenge for me now is to be optimistic without the professional part. Can I live into the great hope the gospel proclaims without being paid to do it? Pray for me as I step into that great challenge. And know that you will always be in my prayers.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.