Saturday, December 28, 2013

“Like a son of the gods”

Our family gathered in Mobile for Christmas Eve.  It was a joyous occasion as we celebrated the Nativity for the first-time with our nine-month-old grandson.

Nora and I were there along with son Chris (who had the day before celebrated his 32nd birthday), daughter Leigh, son-in-law Fred, and grandson Wilt.  The weather was perfect for a southern Christmas – a chill in the air with a starry night. It was a good night to be in warm homes, gathered with family, preparing to share presents.

The family gathered fully for the first time on this holiday at the Christmas Eve service at Christ Church Cathedral.  The musical prelude was beautiful.  It set the tone for the service so well.  The church was full as families came together in reserved pews for the sacred beginning of the observance of Christmas.  The Bishop celebrated and the Dean preached.  Hers was a moving sermon, recalling the example of Phillips Brooks, one-time rector of Trinity Church, Copley Square, in Boston, and lyricist of the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

There was a sense of warmth present – a feeling that, for that brief moment, all was right with the world.  The Savior had come.  A child had been born. Emmanuel. God with us.  The ground of our being had become one with us in human form. From him we have all received grace upon grace.

We departed the peace and majesty of that service in the cold, dark night.  Our children and grandson went in one car.  Nora and I left in our car.  We began the three-mile drive back to our daughter’s home in Midtown Mobile.

As we drove west on Government Street, I looked for a place to purchase gas for my car.  Nora and I had a 65 mile drive to Fort Morgan later that night, and I needed gas to make the drive.

We were perhaps half-way down Government Street when I saw an Exxon station lighted and open.  I pulled in to the station and up to a vacant pump.  The manager of the station was hosing down the concrete premises. The station appeared largely vacant, other than him.

As I got out of my car to pump the gas, I saw an older African American man walking across the station’s concrete apron.  He was talking to the station manager as he walked, and was carrying two plastic grocery store bags, one in each hand.  He was bundled against the night’s cold.  His sparse beard was flecked with grey. His wool hat was pulled over his hair.  A few of his stained teeth were missing.  He walked toward me.

I was dressed in my typical “civilian” church clothes: navy blue blazer, blue-and-white tape-stripe shirt, faintly-patterned grey-checkered slacks, and my comfortable brown oxford shoes.  I did not wear a tie.  I was “Mr. Middle Class”.

As he walked toward me, I thought of the four $20 bills folded neatly in my pocket.  I wondered what he would ask, and I thought about what I would give.  “After all, it is Christmas Eve,” I thought to myself.

He walked to within about eight feet of me.  “Ain’t it wonderful?” he said.  “The girl was nearly burned to death 30 years ago.”  He was clearly clued into a story I did not know.

“Yes, that’s right.  She nearly burned to death.  And now she is a young woman! Isn’t that wonderful? God is good!”

Surprised and puzzled, I responded: “Yes, that is good.” 

He continued, a smile on his weathered face:  “And you know what?  Have you ever seen the story in the Bible?  The one about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?”

“Yes, I know that one,” I replied. “The one about the fiery furnace.”

“That’s right,” he said.  “They were in the fire and they saw a fourth man in there..”

“Like a son of God,” I completed his sentence.

“That’s right,” he said. “There was a fourth person with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. One like God.  Isn’t that great?  That’s what happened to that girl.  God was with her.  And now she’s a grown woman.” 

“That’s a wonderful story,” I said.

“Have a merry Christmas,” he said, as he walked away into the night.

“And you, too,” I responded.

He had asked for nothing.  And he gave me so much.

I finished filling my car.  I put the nozzle back in its place, replaced the gas cap, and closed the cover.

I looked around in the night.  There was Nora, me, and the station manager. The three of us.  And the mysterious, grateful man who had walked into the night, “one like a son of the gods.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Is there balm in Gilead?

My previous blog post may pose an interesting question: What promotes balance within the cleric’s life? In other words, how does an ordained person avoid the gaping maw of those destructive characteristics described in the last post?  Are we merely to live life as it comes with the phrase que sera, sera, as our fatalistic approach to life? 

No, we are not.  There are ways to achieve some modicum of balance in our lives, though, by necessity, it will be a dynamic balance – always subject to shifting, movement, and adjustment. 

Following are some remedies to prevent the downward spiral caused by tendencies such as isolation, despair, anger, overwork, mania, emptiness and addictions: 

·         Consistent Spiritual Disciplines – This may seem like a “no brainer” for a priest, but sometimes the tendency is to be so wrapped-up in “church work” that we forget to tend the vine which nourishes us.  A personal discipline of prayer, quietness, mindfulness, and solitude will contribute significantly to a foundation for the healthy exercise of the ordained vocation. There are many variations and forms of this discipline.  The key is to have some form as part of your daily life. (I would note that many people find a frank, open relationship to a spiritual companion/director very important.) 

·         Exercise – Exercise which a person enjoys is good for the body and the soul.  There are physiological changes, on several levels, which occur with exercise and any thorough description of those effects is well beyond my expertise.  I know from personal experience that moderate exercise serves to clear the cobwebs from my head, allows me to release pent-up frustration in a healthy way, and provides a sense of vitality and relaxation that is good for me.  My personal form of exercise is walking. And while it is not the same as running a marathon, the recommended 30-minutes per day, five-days per week is a good standard for maintaining balance. 

·         Collegial Support – I have said to Mississippi clergy that if I had one gift to give all clergy, it would be the gift of a self-selected peer support group.  Such a group – which has as its foundations candor, confidentiality, and accountability – can be a meaningful means of support.  It helps the ordained person realize that the vocational journey need not be an isolated one; that others walk a similar path and share similar experiences.  The characteristics of candor, confidentiality, and accountability are important. Otherwise, the exercise becomes meaningless and has reduced benefits.  This particular concept is at the core of Post Ordination Consultation and Fresh Start. 

·         Time with Loved Ones – The concept of balance, at its core, should provide time for those we love.  I know that relates to many permutations of relations – family of various sorts, and friends of many types.  An important factor is that this is time away from the vocation and an opportunity to share life with those for whom our vocation is irrelevant. It is in such times that we are able to delve into the connections by which our lives are fed and by which we express our gratitude – by time and presence – with those who are important to us.  In many cases, the vows we have taken – in marriage or at the baptismal font – precede our ordination vows.  Those meaningful relationships should not be cast-off or sacrificed on the altar of vocation. 

·         Fun – Life can become heavy and burdensome in the ordained ministry.  We deal with matters that have significant impacts on people’s lives.  We must hold much of it within the corners of our own hearts.  Much that we deal with cannot be easily solved or resolved at all. Many times we live grasping the tragic remainder.  We are subject to projections and transferences, for better or worse, that are out of our control. All these factors mean that we need to have sources of joy that are outside of the vocation. There is a limitless list of possibilities: various hobbies, such as cooking, golf, tennis, model railroading, knitting, painting, photography and others; hiking; bicycling; music; and sporting events.  These, and others, can be yeast to provide airiness to life when it becomes too oppressive.  

·         Intellectual Stimulation – I was told by a friend that she had mentioned to another acquaintance that she was reading a specific book that was popular at the time.  The acquaintance responded, “I don’t read.”  If we find ourselves encountering life without the intellectual curiosity that is so characteristically human, we lose an important part of ourselves.  The intellectual stimulation which is encouraged here is not necessarily something that contributes directly to our vocational exercise. I am not saying that a cleric needs to be poring over the volumes of Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth. I am suggesting that it is important to find a stimulating intellectual area and pursue it.  Find an area of literature or life that you enjoy, and then go deep into it.  It will likely yield benefits to your life and vocation (and, yes, conversation) on many levels. 

·         Laughter – Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her much-admired book Team of Rivals, wrote of Abraham Lincoln’s bountiful sense of humor, even in the darkest days of the Civil War.  He had a tendency, even in the tensest of moments, to recall a story or anecdote which brought levity to the direst circumstances.  As the portion of Reader’s Digest is named, “Laughter is the Best Medicine.”  If our vocations become so heavy that we lose all sense of perspective, we are of little use to anyone. One saying states it so well, “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.” Laughter, in an appropriate setting, can prick the balloon of seriousness and allow us to move forward, perhaps not with happiness, but at least joy 

I have found that in this blogging, there is joy for me. I am able to organize rather convoluted and disorganized thoughts, and bring them into a cogent set of concepts.  This is an exercise of balance for me.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fire Bells in the Night

Twenty-six years of ordained ministry have hammered home various points about this peculiar vocation.  Some are realized intuitively over time, and hopefully become part of the background wisdom that informs the exercise of ministry.  Other key points are discussed or taught openly in a variety of formal or informal settings.  It is hoped that some of those insights will be found to be authentic and, like the earlier, intuitive lessons, will be incorporated into the healthy living of vocation. 

Some have greater truth than others.  Some have a greater sense of resonance. Some are like a fire bell in the night.  

I have been fortunate to have known and worked under some very thoughtful people.  The lessons they have shared and the wisdom they have exhibited have been great gifts.  I hope some of them have stuck.  It is true, indeed, that what we do not know can hurt us.

Years ago, before I was on diocesan staff or the Commission on Ministry, I heard of the marital break-ups of three close friends, all of whom were clergy. I reflected on what I saw as the trail of wreckage left by clergy whose lives had descended into the depths.  I wrote an earnest letter expressing my concern to the chair of the Wellness Subcommittee of the Commission on Ministry.  While he and I commiserated personally on the situation, the response was much like the sound of silence that Elijah encountered outside the cave on Mount Horeb.

I recently heard other news. I learned of the deposition of a longtime friend in another diocese. Like others I have seen over the years, there was sexual misconduct involved. Some situations which have arisen in years past were hardly a surprise.  This one was truly unexpected.  But, from what I understand, the essential predictive elements were present – as it seems they always are. Warning signs are there.  But they go unheeded. Lives are ruined. A vocation is lost. Countless costs – spiritually, emotionally, vocationally, and personally – are incurred. The impact is like a meteor crater – a definitive point of impact with concentric circles of damage emanating outward from the original damage

Again and again, in various forms, the key point is conveyed: Balance is a key element in the healthy exercise of ordained ministry.  Absent that balance, an ordained person either becomes ineffective (by lack of intellectual, spiritual or vocational rigor) or, tragically, by burning-out and acting out. It is all too predictable.

The former situation (characterized by lack of engagement or connection with the congregation) is a subject for another time.  However, the imbalance which leads to destructive behavior is my topic here.

In the CREDO component focusing on Vocation, there are two elements which have a bearing on this subject and can lead, at least partly, to the slippery slope that ends in loss of vocation or vocational identity.  Those two areas of focus are Margin and Emotional Labor.

Margin has to do with “open space” which exists in our emotional, physical, financial, and time lives.  A credit score might be a good metaphor for margin.  If a priest has a metaphorical credit score of 350 in any of those four areas of margin, they are skating on thin ice.  An image of a rubber band may be helpful, too.  If the rubber band is stretched too far, it snaps.  Likewise, if we stretch ourselves too far in the areas of emotional, physical financial, or time reserves, we are in a potentially dangerous position. (Note: A helpful book on this aspect is Margin, by Richard A. Swenson, M.D.)

Emotional Labor is another potential area of peril.  This has to do, to a great extent, with hiding, disguising or minimizing emotions.  Critical to this concept are the display rules we observe (or are imposed on us in terms of expectations).  Clergy may feel elated over something about which it would be perceived as inappropriate to feel that way.  Likewise, a cleric might feel anger, sadness or any other form of emotion which might not seem to be appropriate in a particular setting. This can lead to a phenomenon known as deep acting, in which we are so separated from our true emotions, we are not aware of them at all.  This is a form of suppression, and can be dangerous to one’s wellbeing. (Note:  A good book on this subject is The Managed Heart, by Arlie Russell Hochschild.)

These two topics highlight some of the dangers of unawareness in the ordained vocation.  There are others I would highlight very briefly:

·         OverworkWorkaholism is a valued behavior for clergy by congregations. There are rewards (short-term) for the congregation and the cleric. Ultimately, though, it is destructive. Congregations tend to value an over-functioning rector.  Likewise, clergy find the approval they receive for such over-functioning is like crack cocaine – addictive, giving a sense of a high, a steadily increasing requirement for “more”, but ultimately of no value. There is likely to be an ultimate crash.

·         Isolation – When clergy become lone rangers, alarms should be sounded.  We find vitality and wholeness of life in community.  With a cleric, community will need to be more than one’s parish. A peer support group or constructive involvement in other ways with people outside the parish is important for balance. Withdrawal from wider church functions is frequently evidence of such isolation.

·         Mania – The hyperactive lifestyle should be noted. This is the behavioral and unholy whirling dervish. Life is accelerating. The high which accompanies this level of mania serves as a drug to anesthetize inner wounds.  This may sometimes be accompanied by a loss of appropriate boundaries. The cleric exhibiting these tendencies is potentially moving quickly in the direction of being “out of control.”

·         Anger – Another “mine canary” would be anger, or maybe resentment (best defined as anger with dust on it).  This may be low-grade, simmering anger.  Or it might be evidenced in outbursts that are out-of-proportion to the circumstances. The anger may sometimes be within the parish or, more likely, directed toward ecclesiastical superiors, such as the Bishop.

·         Despair – This word may be a bit too dramatic, but it captures the heart of the matter.  Sometimes clergy feel trapped and do not see a viable option for moving upward, downward, or sideways.  They may have been involved in search processes which led to dead-ends.  They do not know a way out of the circumstances.  The despair fuels the anger and isolation. Depression may set in. The fuse is lit.

·         Emptiness – The ordained vocation can be one of great depth and texture, but like a vineyard, it must be tended. I am referring to one’s spiritual journey.  Spiritual disciplines – which are so much more than the empty “pray without ceasing” – can provide a foundation below which we cannot fall.  The importance of regular, anticipated connection to the numinous helps us to maintain perspective, clear lenses through which we can comprehend our journey, and, above all, a sense of hope.  In those disciplines – even when we encounter the Ignatian experience of desolation – we discover that we are not alone in this ministry.  A reading of Romans 8 is tonic for the soul. Mindfulness and time alone in silence can be enormously restorative.

·         Addictions – These are more the result of the above – evidence that the horse is out of barn.  Addictions come in many forms – alcohol, drugs, work, spending, sex, inappropriate relationships, pornography, and gambling, among others. These are among the most significant red lights to be observed and responded to.

This listing is by no means complete or authoritative.  These are my insights gained over 26 years of ordained ministry, and they are characteristics of which I am mindful.  If I discern them in my own life – or, if, by God’s grace, someone points them out to me in my own actions – I seek to take restorative action.  If I see them in others, I want to respond in a healing, renewing, honest, and hope-filled way.

The irony in all this is that the church and its leaders have been well-aware of all the warning signs associated with these tendencies.  Yet we do little or nothing about them.  The church tends to be complicit in the denial of their significance. The person who is (hopefully) lovingly told of his or her tendencies in these areas will likely resist such insight.  He or she may be expected to become angrier and withdrawn – which is counterproductive to the desire for healing.

Sadly, the dance of denial or avoidance continues – until it all comes crashing down.  And when it does, great was the fall of lives connected and the institutions served.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What’s the peirnt?

A good friend and I have a question that we pose to each other from time-to-time:  What’s the peirnt?  It is an intentional misspelling and mispronunciation of the last word, and intended to reflect a question from old mob movies – the original and stated question being, What’s the point?

I sometimes find myself wondering that, as it relates to ordained ministry and its exercise in the parish. 

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration I can offer came in a meeting several years ago with either the vestry or search committee of a congregation (the grace of God has caused me to forget which congregation it was).  As the congregational leaders and I discussed the responsibilities and expectations of their next priest, one member said rather caustically, “I want them to pray on their own time.”

I later shared that observation with the senior priest who was then my spiritual director. His response: “That is a ditch I would die in.” His question was, What is the point?

As I work frequently with search committees and vestries, I see the always-present (but sometimes unstated) question arise again and again: What are the expectations of the new rector or vicar?

The person mentioned above clearly thought that it was not the priest’s responsibility to pray – at least on “church time.”

There is a variety of stated and unstated expectations of a cleric – some clear and expected, some unclear and unanticipated.  Some reasonable and some unreasonable. I recall on my first Sunday in one of the parishes I served that an elderly, senior member came to me after the service: “Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for not saying anything personal in your sermon.”  I knew the roots of her concern (they were well-entwined with the congregation’s history), but it was clearly an unstated expectation that I would not get too personal in my sermon.  What if someone else had been called and had been unaware?

But that is a very small example which illustrates a larger point:  There are many expectations of a parish cleric.  Such as…

… Being present in the office on a regular basis.

… Making pastoral calls as needed.

… Assuring smooth functioning of the parish office.

… Visiting newcomers soon after they visit the parish.

Or, visiting newcomers which have expressed no interest in the parish, but someone in the parish has met them.

… Sharing information about pastoral concerns (such as someone’s hospitalization), while preserving appropriate confidences.

… Always being solemn when appropriate, and always being happy when expected.

… Seeing that adequate training is offered for lay readers, Eucharistic ministers, acolytes and others – even if attendance is not convenient for them.

… Preaching sermons that are not too long and not too short.

… Not dealing with social or political topics from the pulpit – unless the congregation largely agrees with the perspective.

… Increasing attendance by young families.

… Assuring the ongoing functioning of a multi-faceted Christian education program.

… Being responsible for the sound financial condition of the congregation (or, conversely, having nothing to do with what Will Campbell called “filthy lucre”).

… An ancillary point: Never talk about money.

… Being the “moral police” (generally directed toward “someone else”) of the congregation while saying nothing of inappropriate behavior.
... Growing the congregation without changing the congregation's methods of functioning or its means of relating to newcomers.

… Being available and responsive 24/7, regardless of the impact on the cleric’s family.

… And, of course, the biggy: Don’t let conflict enter the congregation and, if you do, assume responsibility for it.

Those are among the expectations I have encountered over 12+ years of working with congregations and clergy, and over 14 years of parochial ministry before that.

One of the challenges faced by many clergy is that, with unstated expectations, one person’s perspective is perceived as valid as another’s.

The fact is that priests take vows before the Bishop which summarize their responsibilities as ordained people.  Since we, as Episcopalians, articulate our theology in our prayers and liturgy, it only makes sense that the vows taken before a Bishop at ordination would articulate our understanding of the ordained ministry. The Bishop’s address to the ordinand includes the following:

As a priest, it will be your task to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fashion your life in accordance with its precepts. You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. You are to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to you.

The vows, containing the essential duties of a priest, follow:

Bishop             Do you now in the presence of the Church commit                                       yourself to this trust and responsibility?
            Answer            I do.

Bishop             Will you respect and be guided by the pastoral direction 
                        and leadership of your bishop?
            Answer            I will.

Bishop             Will you be diligent in the reading and study of the                                      Holy Scriptures, and in seeking the knowledge of                                         such things as may make you a stronger and more                                                able minister of Christ?
             Answer            I will.

Bishop             Will you endeavor so to minister the Word of God                                       and the sacraments of the New Covenant, that the                                               reconciling love of Christ may be known and                                           received?
            Answer            I will.

 Bishop             Will you undertake to be a faithful pastor to all                                             whom you are called to serve, laboring together                                            with them and with your fellow ministers to build                                              up the family of God?
            Answer            I will.

 Bishop             Will you do your best to pattern your life [and that                                       of your family, or household, or community] in                                                 accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you                                        may be a wholesome example to your people?
            Answer            I will.

Bishop             Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and in                                        private, asking God’s grace, both for yourself and for 
                        others, offering all your labors to God, through the 
                        mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification                                              of the Holy Spirit?
            Answer            I will.

Bishop             May the Lord who has given you the will to do these 
                        things give you the grace and power to perform them.
            Answer            Amen.

These vows express the essential theological raison d’etre for the priesthood, and they provide the basic job description for a priest.

But there is more:  The canons of the Episcopal Church (especially Title III, Canon 9 – Of the Life and Work of Priests) provide some meat on the bone for a priest’s functioning.  Among those duties are the following:

      ·         Seeing that people under their charge receive instructions in the Holy Scriptures; in
             the Catechism; in the Doctrine, Discipline and Worship of the Episcopal Church; and in
             “the exercise of their ministry as baptized persons.”

·         The instruction of all persons in the topics of Christian stewardship, including a reverence for God’s creation and the right use of God’s gifts; generous and consistent giving of time, talent and treasure for the mission and ministry of the Church at home and abroad; the biblical standard of the tithe for financial stewardship; and the responsibility of all persons to make a will as prescribed in The Book of Common Prayer.

·         The proper preparation and instruction for Baptismal candidates and their sponsors;

·         Similarly, candidates for Confirmation, Reception and Reaffirmation should be properly prepared;

·         To announce the scheduled visit of the Bishop;

·         To read in public worship or otherwise disseminate a Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops;

·         To keep faithful and accurate records of all members (including those who have received communion three times in the previous year) and of baptisms, confirmations, deaths, transfers and other changes in membership status.

As you can see, the calling of a priest – including a Rector or Vicar – is largely to the nourishment and development of the spiritual life both in his or her own life and the life of those in the congregation.  This is the work of deepening the journey from which the meaning of life may emerge.

Contemporary critics of the Church write and speak about how the focus of the Church has moved more toward matters of secular life.  Those critics may be right, but from a direction they did not intend. The role of the priest has developed into one of meeting people’s expectations in what is largely a consumer culture. The expectations are frequently associated with mundane matters rather than the transformational deepening of one’s faith.

The priest is called to pray and draw deeply on his or her spiritual journey, taking the fruits of that journey to share with the congregation so that their lives might benefit from those insights. The benefits the priest derives from a deep and profound spiritual life will enrich his or her preaching, teaching and caring for God’s people.

Referring to the earlier quotation from the Vestry or search committee member: If the priest prays only on his or her own time, the congregation may very well get that for which they hope.


Friday, August 16, 2013

Can You Hear Me Now?

Throughout my adult life, faith has been a key component of my existence.  Like many of us in Mississippi, I grew up in a theologically-conservative environment.  The Methodist Church I attended felt to me to be no different from some other the more conservative, evangelical denominations prominent on the Mississippi landscape.

Make no mistake, though:  I am very grateful for my roots in the world of John Wesley.  One of my primary models of ministry was a pastor at Central Methodist Church in Meridian (these were the days before the formation of the United Methodist Church).  His name was John Cook, and though he was not aware of it, he modeled the pastoral life for me.  I will be forever grateful for his example.  His preaching served as a model for my own – a standard at which I am sure I come up short.

I remember the nights at church camp.  A young preacher would come in.  All the teenage campers would be gathered in the recreation hall.  We had the minds of teenagers and all that implies.  I remember specifically one young preacher who thundered to us that one – shaking the gates of hell for us.  Scaring us to death. (I am reminded of the saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”) It was emphasized that the wanderings of our teenage minds were the work of the devil, and judgment would be awaiting us.  He was, in my mind, the sweating evangelist, not unlike the Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of Elmer Gantry.

His proclaimed God was one of expected and required righteousness. An angry God.  A God of vengeance. A God of retribution.

That image of God was seared into my consciousness. Seared.

Yet, I loved God.  And I heard that God calling to me again and again and again.

Over the years, my life of faith drew me more deeply into a relationship with the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. I was drawn toward the Episcopal Church.  It was within that community of faith, and with clergy such as Ted Holt, Mickey Bell, Duncan Gray, Jr., and Sid Sanders, that I found the “God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Again and again, from these and other priests, I heard “the Good News” of a God of grace.  And I heard all that within the sacramental ministry of the Episcopal Church.

So much of this was pre-verbal.  I could not articulate the experience. My vocabulary and insight were not sufficient.  Still, all this, on some level, made my heart sing.

Then began the experiences of transformation.  Revelations. Seeing through a glass – but a little better than darkly. Moments of transcendence.  The veil is opened briefly. Glimpses of the Holy… the numinous.

Those experiences did not come frequently, but they were moments of profound grace. The Jesuits might call them consolations after experiences of desolation. They came at those points in my life when I realized the futility of trying to do things as I had done them. And it revealed to me a God who was profoundly different from the God I had seared into my mind at church camp so many years before.

Those experiences – those sacred encounters – have come maybe five or six times in my adult life.  I do not claim to be a mystic, but these were certainly mystical experiences.  Each time, I have thirsted for more.  But, I guess, they were meant as viaticum – “provisions for the journey.”

It may be both apt and accurate to say that Moses’ description of the Hebrews – “a stiff necked people” – would also apply to me.  It would be accurate because, again and again, I would receive these sacred visitations and self-disclosures from God, but after a short time, I would turn away and seek to live the life of legalism, self-sufficiency, and works-righteousness that I had learned so many years before.

The most dramatic and powerful of all these sacred encounters came in the fall of 2005.  Only a few months before, Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast (and, of course, New Orleans). Life in the diocesan office was frantic, chaotic and overwhelming.  I could not imagine what my fellow clergy were dealing with on the Coast. All of us, I think, were running on adrenaline.  I was certainly not practicing any form of wellness or self care. It was ministry at hyperspeed.

It would not be long before my attention would be sharply focused. In a meeting which preceded General Convention 2006 – a meeting over which I presided – I experienced something very strange.  I later described it as a déjà vu experience on steroids.  While no one else likely noticed any change in my countenance, I was aware of something very significant taking place within me. After the meeting, I confided that experience to the chaplain of that deputation meeting, the Reverend Ron DelBene. I described it as some sort of ecstatic experience. Then I headed back toward the office. 

However, the sensation which I had experienced during the meeting returned to me in waves.  It was repeated again and again over a short period of time.  I knew something was awry, so I went home.

Nora was concerned.  I went to bed, concerned about the sensations, and also utterly exhausted, physically and emotionally.  Nora called a friend, a clinical psychologist, worried that I was experiencing neurological issues.  He came by, visited with me in the darkness of my blinds-drawn bedroom, and encouraged me to see a local neurologist.  Facilitated by him, I was able to see the neurologist pretty quickly.

Over the next two or three days, I remained in bed – completely spent by the experience of the previous months and the immediately-preceding days.  It was in the dark solitude of that bedroom, as I wafted in and out of a conscious state, that I had what may be the holiest experience of my life.

Again and again, the same images came to me.  Images from scripture. Especially images from the life and writings of St. Paul.  They resonated deeply within me in my semisomnolent state.

The first image was of the conversion of Saul – but a specific account of that conversion.  In the Book of Acts, there are three versions of Saul’s conversion – the original “Road to Damascus” experience.  First is in Chapter 9, when the conversion actually took place.  Then, in Chapters 22 and 26, Paul recounts the experience for his listeners – the cataclysmic event when he was transformed from Saul to Paul; from a persecutor of Christians to a leader of the young movement.

My “visions” focused on the account told in Chapter 26.  It is only in that telling that a certain phrase is included.  In each of the two earlier accounts, Saul, after being blinded by a great light, hears a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  The voice, of course, is from Jesus.  However, in Chapter 26, Paul is telling the story again, this time to King Agrippa.  In this account, Paul tells of being struck blind by the light and then hearing a voice says to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?  It hurts you to kick against the goads.  The last phrase is found only in this passage.

That image came to me repeatedly.  And, I should note, I was unaware of the distinction between those three passages at that time.

The other passage which came to me in that semiconscious state was more familiar.  I argue that it is the high point of the New Testament.  It comes from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Those days were challenging times.  The tests I went through under the care of the neurologist were unremarkable and did not reveal any significant issues.  But the spiritual fruits of those days were truly profound, and I have gone back to that spiritual well again and again. I have yearned to return to that experience.

I came from those days and those moments with insights about God and my relationship to Him that were transformative.  Sorting through those visions, I discerned certain insights.  The first was from Chapter 26 of Acts, and Paul being told “It hurts you to kick against the goads.” I believe that God was conveying to me the truth that I had been kicking against the goads.  I had raged against an internal storm. I had striven for God’s grace.  I had sought to earn God’s love.  I had tried so hard to prove my own worth.  God was telling me, “These are already yours. You need not strive so hard.”

I also heard the words of Romans 8 with great clarity: There is nothing that I can do or cannot do that will separate me from the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

The echoes of voices from the past – the young, sweating evangelist at camp, the voices within my own psyche – were silenced, but only temporarily.  Lessons learned early in life are hard to overcome.  As I noted earlier, they were seared into my mind. 

Still, I know that God has shown me another way – a way of life, a way of grace, and way of peace. I find myself living between two theological worlds.

Why is it so hard to live into that paradigm shift?  God asks me again and again, Can you hear me now?  What will it take for me to move from the old life to the new life into which I have been called?  That is a question that is raised for me again and again, as I reach the bottom of life, realize my own brokenness, and am reminded that I need not strive for something that has already been given me.

 Thinking on this, I am reminded that I am in good company.  Hear St. Paul’s words:


15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… 16I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:15,19-25)
I hear these words in an entirely different way than I have heard them before. These are lessons that I have had to absorb time and again as I have sought to prove myself, my rightness, and my self-sufficiency.  The bottom is always a hard place, and it is chastening.  But once it is reached, my attention is drawn toward God and the way out of the depths.  The bottom can be very therapeutic.  There is healing in that moment.

All of this runs the risk of being theological narcissism, and I am aware of that possibility.  Instead, I see it as having an important influence on how I preach, how I minister, and how I relate to friends and family.  If properly integrated and applied, no experience is lost in the economy of God’s movement in our lives.

I am also aware of the eternal nature of these lessons I have learned.  That there is nothing – life, death, whatever may comewhich can remove us from the loving embrace of the God of grace.