Brian Prior, a 49-year-old Episcopal priest, was tapped three years ago for a leadership position in the national church. He also organizes national youth events and leads spiritual retreats throughout the United States.
And he’s still pastor for the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in the Spokane Valley.
Prior recently took a breather from his busy schedule for this interview with Rebecca Nappi for the “Wise Words in Troubled Times” monthly series on the Today page of The Spokesman-Review.
He pondered the good news emerging from the country’s bleak economic situation. And he talked about helping people who stand on financially shaky ground. Here’s the complete transcript of that interview.I became aware that things were a bit out of kilter was when I saw a number of folks I knew personally and otherwise who were buying hugely expensive homes and very expensive cars and knowing, in general, their income level and knowing that it didn’t make sense. I have enough of an economics and finance background to know there was something wrong with that picture. I have a friend who is a contractor who was just booming with the building of homes who, every time I saw him, said “I can’t build them fast enough.” These were expensive homes. I said, “How do people afford these?” He said, “I don’t know if they can afford them, but the money is there.” It didn’t add up. It didn’t make sense.On a cerebral level, there’s the basic math. One plus one equals two and it was just not adding up. It also worried me in the sense that there is something in my soul that comes from both my sense of stewardship and my upbringing from my parents which is you shouldn’t live beyond your means. It was not just a couple of folks I knew or ran into, but it seems as if a whole swath, if not a whole nation, lived beyond their means. One of the characteristics is a lack of stewardship. When you have that excess, you don’t pay attention to stewardship and things devalue across the board. That was a concern. Part of the turnaround is that people are much more conscientious about living within their means and being much better stewards.All the way through the story of Scripture, and certainly historically, when we move beyond our means and live on borrowed money and borrowed times, then the end comes quickly. And we just behave differently. Not surprisingly, often in those times, the neediest care for the needy better than those who have more. John Philip Newell, who is one of my favorites and a good friend, he has this simple mantra. He comes out of the Celtic tradition, really deep within the spirituality of creation world. He said, “There are those who have enough, and there are those who do not have enough, and there are those who have too much, and it’s the responsibility of all three of those to make sure that everybody has enough.” That has been a template for me to view where we are in our world. I hope we are moving back to that. I think that’s part of the good news about where we are presently. I get a sense we’re moving back to that kind of thinking.One of my favorite (Scripture stories) is the widow’s mite and how she gave out of all that she had rather than out of her excesses. And I love the piece in Scripture that talks about Jesus came not to give us life, but give us abundant life and that abundant life is not about the abundance of things but about the richness of what our life can be. Personally and professionally I find some of the greatest wisdom in those who came out of the Depression — both from family members and from Depression-era parishioners. They are some of the best stewards I know. They always ask: “Do we really need that? Can we save that? Can we reuse that? Can we think of another way that won’t cost us any money?”My grandparents lost the family business during the Depression. Through this experience my grandfather engrained in me a sense of stewardship: “Take care of it, and it will last forever.” And he embodied the sense of generosity: “You help folks because you never know when you will need help yourself – and you will.” He went on to rebuild his business that was then passed on to two more generations.They have a mindset that generations have lost. I feel blessed to have and have had both family and professional folks who were scripted during that Depression era.They’ve consistently asked those questions, whether the market was up or down. Regardless of where the economy is, and many of them are doing fine economically and have consistently done fine, they are just so clear about asking: “Can we reuse that bag? Do we need to buy that? Is there another way?” For me that is at the heart of being good stewards, because it doesn’t matter how much they have, it’s a whole approach to life they take. I’ve gained a lot of wisdom from that.I’ve lived with it personally and professionally, people in very challenging economic times. With that said, having children in high school now and wondering about college expenses, there’s a blessing in terms that they find value where they could have gone without finding value. In other words, they would have just lived with the assumption that people could have whatever they want and do whatever they want. There is a reprioritization across the board that I think is very helpful and that we are all asking those questions: “Are we being good stewards? Is this a good use? Are there other ways to do this?”The other dynamic that I think is huge is the sense of hope. That is a core value for us as a faith community. The mood has seemed to change. There seems to be a little bit of light coming now. What I have shared with our folks is that we knew the light was always there, we are people of the light and we are people of hope and we knew the light was always there, that’s a part of who we are. This is a phenomenal opportunity for us to share the hope that is ours, that has consistently been ours. This is a critical time for us to be hopeful. Much of what people are concerned or anxious about now have really little impact on who they are as people and how they relate to each other.When someone’s house burns down, what is the first thing they always say? They say, “We can replace all of that. Thank goodness our family is safe, our pets are safe.”This is a bit of a fire now in our economy and people are saying, “We may not have what we once had. We may not have the things we dreamed we would, but we have family. We have friends.” This is part of the reprioritization. So that’s great news. It’s a new way to approach life.Why do people talk about their own loss when you tell them about yours? I’ve experienced it personally and professionally. The loss of my mother, for example. With a number of folks, the conversation quickly began with folks talking about a loss of their parent or a loss of a loved one. The focus moves away from my mother whom I’m grieving about to them and their loss. Their intentions are good. They are trying to say, “I’ve been there. I understand.” They are trying to be relatable. They want to give a sense they can relate to where you are. But what the person really needs is not the person to be relatable but to be present with them in their situation, to understand their uniqueness.Often what we feel like in those circumstances is you don’t understand what I’m feeling, what I’m going through. The more we can be present with them, ask them what we can do for them, how can we help care for you, love you, support you. Rather than move into our own (loss). People come from a good place, but when you are there, I need to have the opportunity to grieve for my mother and not move into the grief for your mother, brother or spouse. I need to know there are people who love and care for me and support me in that moment.My brother lost his job, and while I can certainly say “Well I have three parishioners and two friends who have lost their jobs,” I call him every week and say how are you doing, how’s it going, need help with anything, can I get you any references or recommendations? I just want to be focused on him so he feels like someone really cares about him and is trying to be there for him.The first question we often overlook is the basic question which is “How are you?” Most of us say “I’m fine. I’m getting by.” They’ll give a surface answer, but you need to keep asking the question. Consistently calling them more than once, then they will know you really mean it, you really do care. That’s the place to always start. And then helping that person move to the next level when they are ready to move. Asking: “So what’s been going on, what are you thinking?” What you are basically asking is what’s your plan and your strategy? And then how can I support that?”Part of accompanying folks in this journey is letting them know you are there, but then helping them take the next step in the journey. That’s often what folks want to do. We want to honor the initial time, but then we need to be talking about taking next steps.Advice is the last thing people need. Just be present with them and let them know you’ll accompany them. You won’t lead them. You won’t make things happen for them, but you will be there for them. Just the feeling of not being alone provides a huge sense of encouragement when you know you’re not alone. Somebody standing by me who is going to walk with me and be there, not fix it, not make it better, but encourage me along the way.Why do we move into advice? Advice often and quickly moves to the place of opinion. When someone is not seeking it, it is not helpful. Uninformed opinions are not helpful either.I’m short on advice for lots of reasons, one of which is that from where I come from, I truly believe God’s grace will come to them. The best advice I can give them is to open themselves up to that grace. In marriage preparation, I meet with folks seven times before and every three months for the first year. It’s really about helping the two of them have a conversation rather than me passing on whatever “wisdom” I think I have or my experience of being married. What is helpful is helping people be open to the movement of the spirit within their midst.People also come to me and say, “I need you to pray for me.” Which I am happy to do. My response is “I look forward to praying with you” or “Let’s both keep praying about that.” But there’s a sense that there’s this hierarchy, because I’m here, God listens more, I get a little more ear time with God. But I tell people, “We’re in the same place here.” The advice you need, the things you need, they will come to you if you open yourself.How do you open yourself to grace? You have to be intentional about that. You have to make time for that. Many of us grow up with saying prayers around meals or before going to bed or in the morning or in that structured time of worship. We have to work beyond that to become much more aware of God’s presence in our lives. Part of that is doing intentional things around journaling, around spending quiet time in prayer and study. But the other part is being open to the presence of God in each and every circumstance. That takes time. That takes cultivation. That’s a life journey.We just had Trinity Sunday. There’s really some richness in the Trinity, because if we see first the God we know as Creator and creating. What a better way to be open to God’s presence than all of that which around me is creative and is creating. And then we know Jesus mainly in that sense of relationship and particularly that which brings wholeness to our lives. What a better way to pay attention to God in relationship and particularly that which brings healing and wholeness. And then the Spirit always moves us in ways we don’t expect and leads us and guides us to places and people and the creative energy and the gifts that come there that you have no idea why you are able to do what you are able to do and to pay attention to that in yourself and others. That’s just a basic Trinity format. If we were able to be attentive to that in our daily lives, we would be much more open to where God is leading us.How do I define grace? I define grace as that moment of experiencing God when we least expect it. Grace happens far more often than we are aware of it. And that’s part of being intentional and doing everything you can to finely tune your senses to God’s grace. I think it is an endless flow, and we just have to continue to work on opening ourselves to it.It’s not only the opening, but it’s the being grateful. There is something that happens when you are grateful that transforms you. When you are not only aware but able to acknowledge the grace that is happening in your life. That changes you.Examples of grace and gratitude in my life? Gosh so many. Today being with a family praying with a grieving and yet eternally grateful for the blessing she was in their life family as they said good bye to their dying mother.
Folks often ask me why I would travel great distances, sleep on a hard mattress, eat bad food and spend a week of 24-hour days with a group of young people. It’s because I get to be a part of watching the transformation of appreciation. Young folks always are more grateful for their families, their friends, their lives.
For the folks who have been diagnosed with cancer in our church who have rallied others to walk all night long at Relay for Life.
For the camper who said the crudest derogatory things about my wife who later became one of the best staff members I ever hired.There is a spirit of generosity in our faith community that has just increased significantly since the downturn of the economy. There’s a spirit of folks aware of people in need and they are willing to do whatever they can to help. More people bring food for the food bank than ever. And often they are folks who are economically challenged themselves and yet are bringing a can of food. That for me is the epitome of the widow’s mite. They are counting on every can and yet they are bringing a can there. We have to be agents of hope. We have to get the message of hope out to folks. The world needs to hear that more than ever. If we can be the bearers of faith, love and hope right now, that will be the difference. When people find themselves on the dark side, it is a very hopeless place. We have to find those folks, be aware of those folks, help those folks out.One of those things that happens in a church situation, and often more to those who have had significant means, is that all of a sudden, they are not able to give at a level that they used to that often brings a level of embarrassment and shame for them and then you begin to see them move away from their faith community. In fact, the faith community needs to be paying attention to that and saying, “It doesn’t matter at what place you were before, you are always a part of this family, this community.” That’s an incredible message for people to know.Often, people who find themselves with tragedies feel incredibly alone. They don’t think people understand them. They don’t think anybody is there for them. If they can get some sense of community, that people really care about them, that’s the core of who we really are. That’s why when we spend too much time on other issues and not on the issues of embracing all of God’s beloved, we’re wasting our time.People are taking the long look, taking stock and reprioritizing about what’s really important to them. If you go to the burning house situation, my experience with folks who have experienced tragedy at that level, they are not that anxious to build something they had before, replace it. They move to embracing what is important to them. I don’t hear people saying, “If we get back there, I can get the big house, the car.” It’s opened folks eyes to a whole other reality they had not experienced before.I just really feel you live a certain way until all of a sudden something shakes you out of it. That’s why some of the greatest givers I’ve ever experienced have lived pretty challenged lives. They know what that’s like. So they are giving back. They might not have huge amounts now. But they have enough now and they are trying to help others. They say, “I understand what loss is, what grief is, I know what going without is. Let me help you out here.”We have more people who come to fellowship things than ever. That has to do with people wanting to feel there’s community there. They want to share with others. It’s the food and the company and where people are getting filled in communal gathering time. Our line is “We feed our faith, so we can feed the world.” People come there to be fed on all sort of levels — in communion, in fellowship, in education, in people being sent forth to do outreach. People feel fed so they can feed the world.In my ministry, I’ve consistently seen crises. I’ve seen a rise in the awareness of crisis. And I’ve seen an attention to crisis that was not there before. When people say things like, “We live in the hardest times ever,” it’s like, “Are you kidding me?” Read some Medieval history.> We moved as a culture and society to really elevating crisis. We know about everybody’s. There’s a bit in vogue with crisis. That’s not to diminish anyone’s crisis, but we have everything from reality shows to networks that highlight or create crisis and chaos. The reality is we will all have challenges today. We’ll also have joy and moments of grace. We can adore those crises or say, “Yeah, this happened but this happened, too.”The key is to not over-exaggerate the crisis and under-exaggerate the good news that has happened. Part of my role as a pastor and person of faith is to continue to be open to that. What happens then is all we do is bemoan things. We say, “Good Lord, deliver me” but we’re not saying enough “Thank you, Lord, this is great.”We’ve become entertained by crisis. Think of all the lives that are ruined because of that. Not to be nostalgic, but we once loved to watch “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Lucille Ball” and “Leave it to Beaver” and even the “Cosby Show.” All those were based on people doing fun things. Now we watch families where it’s wife swap — what sense does that make? — to Kate and what’s his name at 8. We used to enjoy watching good, healthy families interacting, now we’re entertained by people stubbing their toes and other things.I’ve had this long ongoing conversation with a good friend of mine who loves “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” He’s a well-educated and compassionate person. Not that I’m on empathy overload, but when the person rides the bike into the wall and it slams and the laugh track is going, really that person is hurt. Or the bride who the cake falls on her head, that’s a tragic moment and we’re finding it entertaining. We’re creating a whole culture where that’s entertaining.What’s the reason? Historically, there’s always been a part of it — lions in the den. That may be the dark side coming out in all of us, like the little piece that likes to gossip. We need to put as much energy into people making a difference and to good, healthy things happening. As a pastor, I can spend all my time talking about the awful things that are happening. But the reality is I’m really here to talk about the good news. Where is the redemption from this? Where is the new life that can come out of this? We can’t just stay on Good Friday. My job is to help you say, “Hey, there’s Easter here.”Where’s God in all this? Where God always is, right in the middle of it, hoping we’ll make the right choices, that we’re choosing life, not death. And we’re choosing to be the people God has called us to be, using our gifts for ministry and for goodness. Opportunities continue to be there. God has not left. Each and every one of these circumstances is an opportunity.I don’t believe spending more is the answer. Spending to help people in need, spending to get things moving, yes. But if spending’s goal is to take us back, there is no going back. This is a chance to really reorder, reprioritize and be in a place where we’re a more caring, compassionate world. Spending so (the stock market) can be back at 14,000 or have more McMansions or live beyond our means or not be the good stewards we’re being called to be, no.For my entire adult life, I have always found new life with young people. Even if they have parents who are economically challenged, the young people still find joy and happiness and fun and humor. You look at that and say “There is the future. How do we help them to continue to live into that, rather than dwell on what is presently going on?” When I need hope or humor or new life, I’ll hang out with some young people, because they don’t let that bother them. They are eternal optimists. There’s nothing like hanging out with a group of high school boys who think they own the world.Or the girls I coach on the Freeman Lady Scotties basketball team – let me tell you our tragedy. We got all the way to the second-to-last game before the championship game. Four seconds left. We’re down by two points. Our senior star shoots the ball, ties the game. Two seconds left; (we) throw the ball in. The buzzer sounds. The ref calls a foul on (our) senior. The ref says shoot the free throw. We said, “No, the buzzer sounded. The game was over.” This girl (on the other team) shoots in the free throw. Game over.Now I have 10 high school girls writhing on the floor. I get them in the locker room. I’ve been in emergency rooms I’d rather be in then in that room at that moment. The emotional devastation was huge. Then I remembered something I was once told. The emotional life cycle of a high school girl is 22 minutes. About 20 minutes later, they were laughing and having fun. New life was there. They had the resilience and ability to say, “This was awful. It was wrong and unjust and all that sort of stuff, but what do you guys want to do now, what are you doing tonight, can I wear that shirt?” They were ready to move on, looking for the next fun, great thing to do.
What can we learn from them? They are incredibly resilient. That they are not going to be held down. They are not going to let even injustice dictate how they will live their lives. That they are always going to be looking for the next, great thing to do – as long as they are together and with each other. I get a lot from all of that.