Confession: I don’t buy into the popular notion of one being called into ministry.
Early on, I had a child-like, infantile notion that a proper call would be a thunderclap, lightening bolt kind of thing, a Cecil B. DeMille, Hollywood-swinging kind of production. That’s what my tribe had told me. But my scientific worldview broke me of that myth pretty soon out of the gate. In fact, if my memory serves me, my biologist mother lectured me on the science of evolution as I was her captive audience on the warming table after my birth.
My true belief came to fore when the inquisition of what I truly believed was pressed one fine Kenucky Spring day on the week following the Derby.
I was interviewing at the Southern Baptist seminary when the question of call came to a punctiliar moment. Travelling to Louisville to explore the prospect of me moving there to take some grad courses, while trying on work in a psychiatric hospital, my future was wide open, as Tom Petty would later sing.
The afternoon found me sitting with a noted scholar who had been chatting with my home pastor about his past days as a professor at said seminary. Suddenly, the academic dean turned to me, looked over his black-rimmed scholarly glasses and inquired, as curious minds must, “When did you first experience the call of God to the ordained ministry?”
Okay. I admit. It’s a fast ball on the outside corner of the plate, begging to be hit. And so, I took my best swing, a swing for the fence, as my brother would say.
“Well, Dr. Songer, I guess it was when the bird shit on on shoulder coming out of church.”
My pastor, Dr. Estill Jones, started laughing so hard that he came of his chair. He knew me too well, and, more importantly, knew my mother who had passed on the perverse McBrayer sense of humor that could not pass up an opportunity to call a spade a bloody hoe. My bet is Estill anticipated some kind of fireworks in the room, and just wanted to be there to watch it happen, like people who gawk at an accident or watch bloopers.
Dr. Songer, on the other hand, found absolutely no humor in my response. He began a lecture that would go on for some time, about the seriousness of ministry, the mission of the seminary to spread the Gospel, and the pursuit of highest standards of education. I had clearly misread my audience. I should have learned then, both about my impertinence and the Southern Baptists’, at least in that time and place, lack of a sense of humor.
Those of you who follow my blog know that my path to priesthood was circuitous, at best. I was taking up Erik Erikson’s notion of a “pause” , a moratorium, more precisely, to weigh one’s options. Law school, med school, politics, or as Jethro Bodine framed the question: brain surgeon or soda jerk? Not to be redundant, my future was wide open.
I simply was wanting to try on the options of a continued course of study in theology while I also worked at a local psychiatric hospital to see what fit me best: crazy church people, or certified crazy folks. Those of you who have read my story know that I made the wrong decision.
The notion of a dramatic call that seemed to be in the mind of my religious home team just didn’t make sense to me. And yeah, I know about burning bushes. I had seen fiery azaleas in the springtime Appalachian woods, but there were no voices. And, I’ve heard about the road to Damascus, but my revelation was on Highwaty A1A, and there was an herbal assist involved. No blindness, though my grandmother had warned me of long-term effects.
Dramatic calling to ministry? I’m like Will Campbell who when he asked his grandfather if he believed in infant baptism responded, “Believe in it? Hell, I’ve even seen one!” I’ve had friends of mine tell me about theirs. I’ve read about some in spiritual autobiographies, and listened to some in clinical psychiatric reports.
But for me, I didn’t buy that. Never did, never will…..probably.
But I am thankful to the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta that moved me beyond spooky calls and got me thinking about vocation. Now technically, and linguistically, vocation does refer to a calling. But certainly not what and how my friend Dr. Songer conceptualized.
Rather, vocation or calling was a “fit” between the gifts one has with the demands of a particular piece of work. Buechner said it was where one’s gifts matched up with the needs of the world. I have come to say it this way: it is where my particular and peculiar constellation of gifts fit the particular and peculiar requirements of a job. And usually, in my thinking, it also correlates with the particular and peculiar needs of a time, or a community. I’m talking about context. And that context can change, as can one’s call. I get all pragmatic when I think about vocation.
The Diocese gave me a nine month process, parallel to human gestation, to ponder that question. It provided a group of peers that were trying on the same soul-piercing question. It offered a series of settings that would test your way of dealing with structure, creativity, and being with others. It even let you try on the holy mantle of feeding the people of God in the sacred moment of communion. “How did that feel?” they would ask. “Was it comfortable?”, and if you said “yes”, they would know you were trouble.
And they provided two supervisors, one an experienced priest, and one, a talented lay person who was schooled in the art of human relationship. My priest was Frank Allan, later to become the bishop of Atlanta. It was as if he had read my mail. He knew my gifts as well as my vulnerabilities, my deepest needs. He intuited the tensions within my soul, my struggles. My therapist knew us both and said we were similar in personas, but what the hell did he know.
Frank died a week ago which prompted my thinking about all this. I sure appreciated his investment in me, my development as a priest, and the encouragement to see if there was a “fit” between me and the demands of being a priest. I am most grateful for his intent.
By the way, let me pause for a side trip for a story about Frank. I had become the Canon Pastor at the Cathedral when he was elected Bishop. On the occasion of his celebrating his first Eucharist (holy communion for you, Dr. Songer), he was nervous about his ability to sing the words that begin the prayer. It was our habit at the Cathedral to sing, or as we would say, chant, the opening lines. Frank insisted he was not up to it, so he would be the celebrant and have me standing beside him at the altar, chanting those few lines. Having read each others’ mail, I kidded him by saying it was my first Charlie McCarthy Mass (ancient reference to a ventriloquist act), I suggested he drink from the chalice while I chanted the words. Needless to say, it was the last such occasion!
Back to the vocational testing. Frank was joined by Caroline Westerhoff as one of the supervisors. She was always terse, to the point, with a good sense of humor.
Caroline had a rapid-fire, quick wit, Joan Rivers kind of persona that both intrigued and scared me a bit.
She gave me an image of engagement, as opposed to a term I had been used to, confrontation. She reminded me that confrontation had a negative connotation while engagement meant being in interchange with another because what we were talking about was important. We entered into engagement because it made a difference. I took that insight, that gift, with me on the road.
In another moment, she made another observation that has haunted me. She said that she could easily see me as a prophet, as the prophet stands on the edge of the community and calls into the church to change, to transform. I liked that, relished it in fact, because my heroes had always been prophets (along with cowboys), notably Dr. King. But then she added that she had a harder time seeing me as a priest, for a priest stands in the middle of the community and gathers them together. That insight caught me up short….it sounded true.
Now, I know it’s not a binary thing, not an either/or. Priest/prophet go together if one is to be effective. And clearly, some people are gifted in one area more than others. I knew in that moment that she had told me a truth about myself, that was neither good, nor bad, but true. The decision was then up to me as to how I might hear and respond to God’s call.
Her truth telling was so important to me that I asked her to preach at my ordination as a deacon. It was important for me to hear and recognize her truth told to me, that I was a prophet, I had to hear that, and own that. And, I had to hear the other side so that I would work just a little harder on being a priest, a person that gathers and blesses.
My reason for telling you all this was first, to give thanks for Frank and his ministry. And along with that, to recognize and give thanks for his teammate, Caroline and her wisdom that she shared. I wanted to give thanks for the Diocese of Atlanta and the process it provided, instead of a bird bombing me from above.
But most of all, I wanted to remind you that vocation isn’t some spooky thing, some “woo woo” mysterious mojo as my friend Drayton would say. It’s for everyone. Everyone has a calling, a vocation. We have a life in which we can direct our energies, make decisions as to how our lives will be spent. By following our particular and peculiar constellation of gifts, we serve others, bringing forth fruit from our labors, and granting us a deep experience of joy that blows mere happiness away..
This vocation, this calling “thing”, is for all people, not reserved for priests or ministers. I have been lucky to come across some Atticuses called to law, some Marcus Welbys who are called to serve family’s health, some teachers, some public servants, some chefs, some parents, who have calls, true vocations. I even know a man, a friend, who is a janitor at a church, who tells me he is called to keep God’s House in order…..and I know he’s right on the money. This is a noble thing, this calling, this vocation. Noble.
What is your vocation, your calling? And don’t hand me a smart ass remark about some damn bird!