South of God?

Dreams can become nightmares if you are not careful. I shared two significant dreams over the last two weeks, dreams that pointed the way in my decision making. I continue to pay attention to my dreams, my inner work of reflection, and journaling. And meditation provides a centering that I would hate to be without in my life. But, I also have valued the power of good old fashioned reason in terms of making decisions. De-ciding mean literally killing off some options for one’s life, a necessary fact of life. Saying “No” to somethings frees you to say a big “Yes” to your passion.

Today, I want to walk you through a long process that I went through in making a life decision. It has both reliance on focused and careful attention on the outer world as well as openness to promptings of the inner life. I am also hoping to to answer some questions that some readers have asked, notably one: why South of God? Where did you come up with that odd title?

Obviously, I grew up in the South, even though Atlanta is a bit of an oasis, an island, or a isolation cell, depending on your perspective. The South, like it or not, is the context of my thinking, my starting point. I mostly treasure my Southern heritage but have also recoiled when I am brought face-to-face with its atrocities. South is where I am fated to begin my story.

So South of God. How did that phrase emerge? I had completed my college, seminary, and my doctoral course work. I had spent time as a youth minister in a great community of Christians, South of God, that is, Southern Baptists, according to my mentor, Carlyle Marney. I had even tried going as an associate pastor to a South of God, Higher Than Roman Church, Northside Drive Baptist which was Jimmy Carter’s church when he was Governor. It had all the trappings of Catholic worship, but not the spirit. I used to kid the members that they were a bunch of Baptists who were looking for a church that did not clash with their Mercedes. It was quite tony, on the edge of the Buckhead disttict of Atlanta. And while I loved the people and the setting, there was just something missing.

For some time, I longed for a sacrament-centered worship with the weekly Eucharist providing a spiritual grounding. I won’t bother you with historical or theological reasons here. It was what I  intuitively knew I needed for the road ahead. Of course, the natural answer was the Roman Catholic Church. Since I had some familiarity with the Trappist monks and Ignatian spirituality, I hesitatingly  entertained Rome as a real possibility.

As I seriously studied and investigated the possibilites, interviewing a number of priests and even a bishop, my doubts about this course emerged. After a brief flirtation with the Roman Church, I became clear that this boy was not going to be able to fade the celibacy clause in the contract of being a priest. Soon after making this decision, I met my wife. Her name was Mary. Now, I can’t begin to tell you the massive amount of grief my Trappist monk friends and Dominican priests gave me when I told them I was in love with a girl, a maiden, named Mary. Of course you are, they laughed.

With that decision made, where might I live out my life in ministry? Maybe I would teach in a seminary…you didn’t have to be a priest to do that. I was well on my way to that. All I needed was to find a community, a place to worship.  I had been attracted to the Episcopal Church by some television broadcasts from a downtown Atlanta Episcopal Church, St. Luke’s. There was cherubic-faced priest who would talk about Jesus that was familiar, that made sense, that made me feel connected. His name was Tom Bowers and he had started a revolution downtown, making the city more humane through the presence of the church.

His assistant, Father Charlie Sumners, led the Folk Mass, playing his guitar, leading the congregation singing, Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog. Besides helping him drink his wine, I found a spirit of joy that had been missing, all centered around a communal celebration of the Eucharist, or as it was known in my South of God past, holy communion.

My wife, Mary (remember her from the monks) and I decided to try on this new way of worship on and enrolled in the Confirmation class led by Dan Matthews, who followed Bowers at St. Luke’s, and presented a winsome picture of the Christian faith. He had surrounded himself with an awesome group of talented, bright priests who made Luke’s an exciting place to be. I later accused Dan on “skewing” me by leading me to assume that all Episcopal churches had bright, courageous clergy.

Mary and I quickly became a part of the community at St. Luke’s, worshiping on Sunday, sitting on the  left side, halfway down, right behind the Girardeau’s, Jean Cobb, and Doc Willis. The fresco at the front of the church became an operative image for me, that of the Good Shepherd, who leaves the ninety-nine in order to find the lost one. I loved that radical notion of God’s love and it was what St. Luke’s was incarnating in its ministries in Atlanta.

I found myself doing clinical work at the Training and Counseling Center there and working with the street people that St. Luke’s fed through their daily soup kitchen. It may have been the most creative time of my life.

After a year in the parish, I expressed my interest in exploring a vocation to the Episcopal priesthood to Dan, my Rector. There was a highly structured program in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta to help one make that decision, at least that was the party line that they told me. Truth was, the Vocational Testing Program was a nine month process that could weed out the folks who should not be ordained and inflicted upon the good people of the Episcopal Church.

It consisted of four quarters, just like a football game. At the end, the supervisors would decide who could go on to seminary to train to be a parish priest. And, they would help the folks not approved for seminary to find a way to exercise their ministry as lay people in their home parish.

The nine months were the most rigorous and taxing time I have ever gone through. Part of it had to do with the stakes on the table. Every person who entered the process had talked to their local priest about their sense of being called to ordained ministry. They had gone through a local committee process of discernment in which one’s fellow parish members asked the tough question: why in the world do you want to be a priest? And then ask a tougher question of themselves: can I see this person as my priest? So after this, a person’s desire to be a priest is made public, which is sort of a precarious place to be.

After the parish approved aspirants, a fancy name for “I want to be a priest!”, one would begin a process of discernment, experiencing a structured series of activities that are designed to raise pressing issues that are relevant to life in the priesthood.

The first quarter was comprised of being in a hospital, visiting sick people with a badge that said Chaplain. It was a highly structured time of being in an institution with some necessarily strict rules. Each week, you would meet with your fellow aspirants along with two  supervisors who would ask pressing questions about your motivation and note the issues that arose internally. This quarter was designed to discover how one dealt with institutional structure. Would you lay down in compliance, would you rebel, consciously or unconsciouly, or would you find a way of being that both respected the structure while moving gracefully within it?

The second quarter was just the opposite. Rather than structure, the aspirant was asked to create his/her own urban experience. How might you experience the reality of the city that might press your level of comfort? What could you do to help you understand the urban setting in a fresh way? Unstated, the quarter was asking the question of how you deal with freedom. Could you be creative in the context of ambiguity? Many people decided to go into the night life scene of Atlanta to see what might emerge internally. Some orchestrated a ride in a police patrol car. Some went to strip bars or to a trans show bar, such as the infamous Sweet Gum Head. I did it all. I even spent a night on the streets of Atlanta without any ID or money. Time of your life, huh kid? said Guido the Killer Pimp.

The third quarter was a little more expected. We were to spend time in a parish other than our own. We were to negotiate with the local priest as to our function, teaching a class, administering communion, leading prayers, something that would let us “try on” the role of a symbol bearer. I decided to return to my home town of East Point to the Episcopal parish of the Resurrection, which was just down the street from my home church, South of God. The priest allowed me to preach which proved to be a touching moment and time of affirmation of my gifts. For other aspirants, it was  a profound moment of discomfort and painful awareness that this just didn’t “fit”.

At the end of the third quarter, the supervisors announced their decision as to whether the aspirant got the approval to go on to seminary. Those who did not get the approval took the time to figure out how they might reengage their ministry back in their home parish. The supervisors gave me their approval so I was able to move toward ordination in the Episcopal Church. But one of the supervisors gave me a worthy comment as to what she saw in me. She thoughtfully offered the thought that she could easily see me in the role of a prophet, that is, one who stands on the edge of the faith community, a person in the margins, reminding the Church of the needs of the world and calling them to be faithful. She paused and then offered another insight, which rang in my mind and soul for some time: I wonder about you being a priest, because a priest’s role is to stand in the center of the faith community and gather them. She had read my mail.  I had allowed her to see my soul, and she called it right. It was to be my perennial issue, seeking to balance the priest/prophet identity. Her words haunt me.

Truth is, nothing prepares you for the work and life of a priest, but this process gave me a clearer sense of vocation, a call to that life’s work. It has formed my notion of “calling”, or vocation, as a “fit” between one’s particular and peculiar constellation of gifts with the current needs of the community. For me, it is a pragmatic thing, a functional definition of my role within the church, although the symbolic dimension is undeniable. All the words in this sentence are carefully chosen and refined, but seem true. It gave me the courage and resolve to say a “yes” to the call I had wrestled with in my life. The life I chose to live gave me both a blessing and a limp.

This was how I made the decision to become a priest in the Episcopal part of the Church that attempts to follow the Christ. I have been able to serve the street people of Atlanta, the wealthiest elite of Atlanta, the swaggering Texans of Tyler, and the cocooned suburbanites. They have taught me volumes about the human condition and even more about my self. I have found and claimed intellectual freedom in my time, as well as a profound dependence on the Spirit that resides in Creation and connects us all. It’s been quite a ride for this pilgrim treading the path of faith in this world. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

But, make no mistake, I come from the Southside, that is, the southside of Atlanta, and of course, South of God.

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