“Vessels of Honor” by Virginia Myers

Showing Love to Everyone, from Teen Prostitutes to Legalistic Church-Ladies

"Vessels of Honor" by Virginia Myers — Kimia Wood Father Leffingwell should be retired. After serving the Episcopal church for forty years and losing his beloved wife he “deserves” a rest.

God, however, carries him across the country to Seattle to be temp pastor to a congregation and minister to his son dying of AIDS.

Stated like that it sounds pedestrian enough – but anyone who’s faced the struggle of honoring God in the trenches of life will find this book as captivating and challenging as I did.

The Set-Up

Father Leffingwell makes his entrance to the town by having lunch with the street kid who sleeps in the dumpster next door to the church. Over the first chapter or so, a string of different perspectives introduce us to this average church’s average problems:

The wheelchair-bound accident-victim whose wife is having an affair. The forty-five-year-old with two grown children, who’s pregnant. The liberal and conservative members of the search committee, who are locked in a struggle over hiring a gay priest or changing the arrangement of the furniture in the rectory.

There are a lot of names at first, which helps us relate with Father Leffingwell, thrown into this congregation as its shepherd and left to swim as best he can. After first introductions, the number of points-of-view also drops, making it easier to follow along with Father Leffingwell as he finds his feet.

This is not one of those small-town-pastor books that I could name but won’t because I’m nice. The search for a permanent priest provides an overarching plot structure, and every character plays their role in Father Leffingwell’s struggle, giving aid or resistance. The book isn’t very long, and I sped through it — it’s an easy but gripping read.

The Father’s Heart, & Backbone

Confronted with his female deacon (approaching ordination), the gay rights lobby, the questions of the pregnant woman about abortion and options, etc., Father Leffingwell is meek, patient, and gracious.

He works with the lady deacon, trying to accommodate the usual schedule of the church.

When the pregnant woman, facing pressure from her family and doubts in herself, comes to talk to him, he doesn’t confront her with gory photographs or whack her with the Bible. He listens, affirms her that she is not alone in being confused, and assures her she has “options.” On this first visit, he doesn’t stress what those options are – just acts as an open ear, and tries to comfort.

This does not make him a compromising push-over, though. Part of the beauty of this book was watching Father Leffingwell accommodate where he can accommodate, and stand firm where he has to stand firm. Although his own son is dying because of a gay lifestyle, Leffingwell’s love for him comes through in every single page, and he spends every free moment sitting beside his son in the hospice center, showing him love in any way he can. Nevertheless, he refuses to bless another “couple’s” gay union, even though his own denomination has a pre-written service for such an event. He even preaches a series on sin.

The Opposition

As much as there’s a villain in this book, it’s the female deacon (heading into ordination). The book doesn’t shy from pointing out the ridiculousness of this stereotypical lib, as when Father Leffingwell argues about marriage with her. She has advised a lady of the congregation to seek divorce because her husband doesn’t satisfy her anymore. However, in promoting same-sex marriage, the deacon claims these relationships should be sanctified because they’re “life-long, monogamous commitments.”

Even here, however, Father Leffingwell strives to be gracious and loving. He’s not Jesus, so his struggle is plain — even he would much rather trade verbal attacks and tell people exactly what he thinks of them. Because of his commitment and obedience to God, though, he works to see things from the other’s perspective, build relationships, and extend them the same dignity he would like to be given.

Father to the Fatherless

Father Leffingwell’s relationship with the street boy, Mark, is a major thread through the book. Ms. Myers does a good job portraying child-like frankness mixed with the distrust and independence that comes from being abused.

This book doesn’t shy away from dealing with the rough world of drugs and abandoned kids, but not in an explicit or glorifying way. In some ways, skipping the actual “acts” and focusing on the consequences (doctor examinations, withdrawal medication) high-lights the hurt of this lifestyle without distracting people with, “Oh, look, we’re talking about teen sex ooooo!”

Sin has obviously tainted Mark’s life. To anyone sitting in a safe living room, reading the story, the solution is obvious. But if the teen prostitutes don’t think they need your help, there’s only so much you can do for them.

Once again, Father Leffingwell’s response of patience, listening, and kindness are what pull Mark in, little by little. People like me want instant fixes: new homes for every broken kid, real facts for every deluded old lady, witty come-backs for every person who annoys us.

But that’s not how Jesus worked. Yes, He laid on the sarcasm to those who needed it, but to the broken-hearted – those who knew they were lost – He offered his time, His patience, His grace and mercy.

Not Me Too

My biggest gripe with the book is probably the climax. Without spoiling too much, false accusations of sexual misconduct is an issue especially pressing and relevant in the world of the last few months. When they aren’t in the form of accusations, but in that most church-y of sins Rumor and Gossip, they can be especially deadly.

So far, so good. But in my very limited experience, such matters are not usually resolved as quickly and easily as they were in the book. I don’t know how I would suggest the author adjust this, but the matter seemed to solve itself more positively and comfortably than sinful humans usually solve such things.

Oh, if only real people hunted down the facts and waited on judging others until the truth was known. The normal tradition of forming battle lines based on emotions, however, is several thousand years old.

To Sum Up

Father Leffingwell has given me another glimpse of Jesus. As he says, we each have our own calling, our own manner of serving God – and to judge someone because they’re running a street ministry, not serving coffee in the church basement, is to judge God’s servant. Judging is God’s job. Ours is to do what He told us to, and not worry about everybody else.

Vessels of Honor is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and on AbeBooks (softcover, as of this writting).

You can find out more about the author on Goodreads, and find her other works on her Amazon page.

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