Does God exist? This ancient question just won’t go away…[It] endures, and now rests in the ether, waiting to spring on college students, retreating after the age of thirty, surfacing for the odd cocktail party, and re-emerging with full force in the ‘philosophical’ years. But before we discuss this complicated question, let me introduce myself: I’m Toby, the talking horse.
-Steve Martin ‘Does God Exist,’ The New Yorker
Model citizen?!” the good Reverend Canon Christopher B. Platt says, sitting down to a fine Caribbean dinner and an interview, “I thought you said ‘motley citizen.’”
He points out that he’d be happy to accept the latter designation, given that the “big 12″ who comprised Jesus’s regular posse weren’t exactly model citizens themselves.
Helpfully illustrating one of several points he makes during the conversation, Platt employs a metaphor: “the higher up the tree a monkey climbs, the more he shows his ass.”
Platt points out that he takes God seriously-he just doesn’t take himself seriously. It’s a distinction lost on many. What we have here is a classic case of a sheep among the wolves.
Platt is, of course, no stranger to ACE readers. For one thing, he’s the man behind the ads for St. Augustine’s Chapel. One from this time last year reads: “If going to a church makes you a Christian, does going to a garage make you a car?” A popular offering touted, “Free coffee. Everlasting life. Membership has its privileges.” Another read, “Now that your kids can name the nine reindeer, shouldn’t they be able to name the 12 apostles?” A more controversial one boldly asserts: “Anyone who claims that God is on their side is dangerous as hell.”
He’s also an occasional letter writer, when the spirit moves him. One from earlier this fall included the line, “That which doesn’t kill me should render me incapable of returning fire.”
His ads garner almost as much comment and mail as the actual content of the paper does (probably falling just short of Real Astrology in terms of popularity).
But the popularity has a price of course. Another ad compared yearning for Jesus to the search for Elvis-and every good southerner knows, you might get away with making light of “Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior,” but mess with the King at your peril.
Platt laughs when he recalls the furor surrounding one ad he’d run for the Chapel, the gist of which was: you don’t necessarily have to show up, you could just send money.
A few people actually sent money; a few more were mortally offended. He remembers a Saturday evening when he was in the midst of “perfecting a gem of a sermon” (pointing out that he is still awaiting the Cliff’s Notes version of Homilies for Dummies), when a caller interrupted his train of thought, asking if he was the person responsible for publishing that outrageous, offensive ad in ACE Magazine. Platt politely let him know that he’d have to be more specific, asking, “Which offensive ad was that?”
When the guy described it, he acknowledged that he was, indeed, the responsible party. The offended reader could only sputter and stutter a moment before he finally called Platt, “THE ANTICHRIST.”
Not missing a beat, Platt’s response was, “If you think an average citizen has Caller ID, what do you suppose the AntiChrist has?” followed by “does your pastor know you’re calling me?” and then “does your pastor know you read ACE Magazine?” -but at some point along the exchange, the caller had hung up.
Platt adds that being named a Model Citizen by ACE “is a little like being named a Great American by the Communist Party.” It looks mean on paper, but it sounded like a compliment when he said it. (His longtime friend, Neil Eklund of Danville comments, “Chris likened this award to an Inquisition.” And one can’t help but assume he’s referring to the History of the World variety.)
It is around this point that perennial gubernatorial candidate Gatewood Galbraith stops by the table to say hello-resulting in unlikely duo: this year’s “Model Citizen” vs. a former “Most Beloved Personality” (in an ACE Readers’ Poll).
Asked if he’s worried about his title being usurped by Platt, Galbraith has nothing but good things to say about the chaplain, and the two of them reflect briefly on an old milk route they shared (at the Dixie Dale Dairy?) – and Galbraith waxes enthusiastic that Jesse “the Mind” Ventura may’ve paved the way, nationally, for other third-party candidates.
Please do not mention the phrase ‘organized religion.’ I already know where you’re going with it, and that argument is for college students who want to have something to talk about when they smoke pot.
Platt may also be the only priest in town who voluntarily lists on his resume, for the record, “Oh yeah. I also owned a headshop-The Store on Limestone. The case went to trial but was thrown out for lack of sufficient evidence.”
And now he’s chaplain of a campus chapel- ministering to students in a decidedly different manner.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that what Platt, St. Augustine’s, or the Episcopalian Church is offering is “Christianity Lite.” It isn’t. As Platt himself acknowledges, “Grace as they say is free. But it is not cheap.”
Over dinner, Platt talks about what he considers the two camps of Christianity. A common and popular sect ascribes to the religion of law (i.e., if you follow a certain set of precepts of good behavior; accept Jesus Christ as your savior; and evangelize – “you will evade God’s wrath” and when you die, “you’ll go to a nice place or a waiting room to a nice place”).
He describes the second camp as the Church of Love, though he is quick to distinguish that he is NOT saying that the church of love is lawless, or that the church of law is loveless.
He characterizes the church of love as being focused on works of mercy: visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, sheltering the needy, clothing the cold, and so on.
Wayne Wright, Episcopal Bishop of Delaware, says of Platt, “Too many ‘churchy’ types think that church only happens inside the building. Chris works on getting out there where folks are. He is definitely not the ‘ivory steeple’ type.” He also adds, “Chris is generous. If he has it, he’ll share it with you.”
One example of ministering to the sick and feeding the hungry is Moveable Feast Lexington, Inc. Although Platt spells out that it is a “private and separate non-profit, non-denominational agency providing daily delivery of meals to persons living with AIDS or HIV,” he was instrumental in ensuring that the agency has a good home at the “Diocese of Lexington’s St. Augustine’s Chapel.”
Although ACE has received an occasional phone call debating exactly who should get credit for what at this undeniably vital non-profit, none of those calls have come from Platt – and there’s no disputing the fact that the positive coverage the agency has received in these pages have come directly as a result of Platt’s ability to get out the good word.
Parishioner and practising psychologist Mary Bolin-Reece attests that “Not only is there a strong and supportive sense of community among the ‘regulars’ at St. A’s, but Chris has supported action in the community…as the Moveable Feast now has a home in the refurbished basement kitchen of St. A’s…For years the chapel has provided meeting space for 12-step programs and other activities which support a healthy and thriving community.”
She adds, “Chris Platt lives and preaches a gospel of inclusion and love and reconciliation and acceptance, not an excluding theology based on legalisms and blame and punishment.”
Platt says, “I love being a priest. I get to do so many things. Baptisms, weddings, visiting hospitals, doing funerals-all valuable in their own way,” acknowledging “I am steeped in sin and far gone from original righteousness. Yet, by God’s grace and people’s forgiveness, I am allowed to be an Episcopal priest.”
As for St. A’s, his friend Neil Eklund quotes the words of a regular, “Where else could you go to an Episcopal church and have a Jewish pianist and offertory music on a saxophone?”
There are certain people who seem to know that the answer to the question is affirmative. And it makes them want to dress up in robes, and capes and cloaks and special hats, or to wear very thick makeup and comb their hair real high. Other people seem to believe the opposite. Some people are fine with this, but others can become gloomy. For those people, there is a special word of one vowel and several nervous, unrelated, consonants: angst.
Michael Delk, assistant to the director at Good Shepherd, originally met Platt when Delk was a student at Transylvania, planning to be a priest. He said the first thing he remembers about Platt is that he had a large drawer full of jokes.
He recalls a meeting earlier this spring where Platt passed him a note, containing a quotation from Kierkegaard and another, seemingly unrelated source. The trick was figuring out how the two came together. He says he’s perhaps most admiring of “Chris’s impish intellect-and I mean that in the best possible sense.”
He adds that “Chris is a gracious, generous, decent person. [He's] always growing, moving out in new directions, trying new things-but he [maintains] love and reverence for the best parts of our tradition, without trying to cover for the ‘not-best’ parts of our tradition.”
An example of Platt’s gift for juxtaposition came in a recent email which elaborates on his philosophy regarding the two camps of organized religion. The first quotation came from the Rev. Canon John M. Peterson of the Anglican Consultative Council: “I hang my head in shame to hear Jesus’ name being affiliated with political movements that isolate, inhibit and breed hate and discontentment between human beings.” Platt sounded an amen to that.
Followed closely by another, seemingly unrelated quotation, “‘And the water tastes funny when you’re far from home/But it’s only the thirsty who hunger to roam.’ Prine, I think.”
There’s an old joke that says a Baptist is just a Methodist with shoes on and a Presbyterian is a Methodist with a college education.
So what’s an Episcopalian? Well. We’re still not sure.
But if it provides any insight, Platt closes out a final email with: “Tomorrow, the Chaplain presents Harry Bellefonte singing ‘Apocalypso Rag.’”
“My name is Henry Christopher Beaumont Platt. The real Henry Christopher Beaumont was the third husband of my grandmother, Anne Clay McDowell- 1. Stucky; 2. Goodwin; and then Beaumont. All three of them croaked-HCB was her favorite. He executed his death rattle finale about six months prior to my postpartum debut. “Dearie” (no way was she going to be called ‘grandma’ or ‘granny’) buried three husbands and both her children.
“I lived with Dearie following my mother’s suicide. Ms. Anne kept her distance and demanded I do the same. She gave me a generous allowance and I usually ate my dinner at the defunct (and we are the poorer for it) Clay’s Restaurant. Located across from where Henry Clay High School used to be. The waitresses at Clay’s would not let me order meat and two starches. Meat and one starch plus something green. And they always set aside a piece of homemade cherry cobbler.”
Asked to clarify if he means THE Clays and THE McDowells of Lexington, he responds, “Henry Clay was my great, great, great grandfather. (Maybe that ought to be four greats…I really don’t know). Mother’s side.
And in the mother of all non-sequiturs, he adds, “‘The Chief’ on Get Smart (‘Sorry about that Chief’) was Edward C. Platt, my father’s brother. The ‘C’ stands for ‘Cuthbert.’ Also related to Isaac Shelby, first governor of Kentucky…” concluding this passage with, “Good breeding is always risky.”
Spelling out his resume, he says, “Allow me to introduce Ole Man Motley Citizen. A ‘seeking a position’ advertisement might read: ’51-year-old, twice divorced, recovering alcoholic, occasional sojourns into major clinical depression, cigarette smoking, white, southern, male, Episcopal priest. Seeks fun-loving parish.’”
Dispensing with the facts, he adds: “BA from University of Kentucky; 1982 Master of Divinity, the Woods Leadership Award (Sewanee’s primo award), student body president and highest score on the General Ordination Examination; 1987 Master of Sacred Theology from the University of the South, Sewanee, TN (Thesis title: Desiderus Erasmus Philosophia Christi as exemplified in the Seven Signs of the Paraphrase of John’s Gospel.’ La dee dah.”