Moving from Baptists South of God to the Episcopal Church was a scary time of adjustment and risk, but I knew I was headed home.
After serving as a minister in two progressive Southern Baptist churches, I felt something was missing. I came from a history of stellar pastors, such as Carlyle Marney, Estill Jones, John Claypool, Bill Lancaster, and Tom Conley. Excellent scholarship, superb preaching, and vibrant personalities, these five pastors cut a fine image of what a pastor could be. But, four of the five were known for being “mavericks” within the tradition. And if I stuck around, I probably would follow their lead and become a maverick myself.
I had observed these guys from afar, as well as close up, and admired their courage and independence. But, I also knew the price they paid. I wanted my independence, but I also wanted to be a part of a community where I experienced a sense of being “at home”, not always playing the role of rebel. There’s a definite art, maybe even a trick, to keeping these two goals in a balanced, polar tension. But that was my intuition as to what I needed and therefore my heart’s desire.
Through my educational and training track, I surprisingly found myself at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, working in the counseling center and working with the homeless ministry at a time when psychiatric hospitals were turning patients out onto the street. My experience at St. Luke’s Episcopal, Atlanta gave me an experience of a community where I felt that sense of “home” where you are known and loved. I found both intellectual curiosity and honesty, with wide birth given to all ways of thinking. Inclusive rather than exclusive, Luke’s went out of its way to be invitatory to all sorts and conditions of people. For me, that was more reflective of the vision that Jesus had presented as the coming Kingdom of God. Luke’s pressed the bounds of what it meant to be Church, intentionally engaged in transforming the city of Atlanta. And the broader Episcopal Church was deeply embedded in the sacramental tradition, while intellectually free, following Truth wherever it led. I wanted some of that.
I began to explore the possibility of making the Episcopal church the base of my personal faith as well as the field for my work, whether as a lay person or as a priest. I began to inquire how I might make that move as my new wife and I began attending the worship of St. Luke’s on Sunday.
My first bishop was a form-setter in the church, Bennett Sims. Bishop Sims heard my story and my desire to be an Episcopal priest and responded enthusiastically, He offered a vision of my moving quickly from my Baptist ordination to priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. I was so excited.
But then I was introduced to a scary creature in the Episcopal Church known as “order”, or as I had come to know it as “bureaucracy”. There was a “meet and right” order to things, a process, I was told. The Chairman of the Commission on Ministry told me in no uncertain terms that I would have to go through about a two-year process to see if it was in the cards for me to be a priest. It’s hilarious that I was cast in the role of Chairman of the COM twenty years later. Irony follows me like a dog.
After I was told that a “hold” was placed on my process, I chaffed at the reins being pulled in on me. I made an appointment with the person who was in charge of the “process”, Caroline Hughes (later Westerhoff). She graciously listened to me review my seminary work, my doctoral work, my experience in two churches, and my clinical experience, as I piled them up high in front of her. I strategically added at the end that two other bishops had offered me a quick path that would forego this extensive “process”. At the end, she furrowed her brow ( a look I came to recognize, and eventually love) ‘splaining to me “how it was” in the Diocese of Atlanta. She concluded by saying that she understood the “rush” of a young man in a hurry, BUT, if I wanted to be a priest in the Diocese of Atlanta, I would have to go through the process.
The “process” at that time had two components. The first was sitting with a committee from your home parish who would help you explore your call to the priesthood. If this committee recommended you for pursuing priesthood, you would move into the second phase, the Vocational Testing Program, VTP we called it. There you would go to nine months of meeting with peers who were also seeking the Church’s blessing to move on in the process. The group would meet weekly with two supervisors, one clergy, one lay. My lay supervisor turned out to be Caroline, a gift that I had no idea just how great it would be.
I decided to go through the “process”, but with a critical self-understanding as to it being my own intention, claiming my own volition in going this route. It was MY decision. No one was forcing me to go through this process. I wanted to be clear with that so that I did not waste any time and energy rebelling, consciously or unconsciously, to the process. I wanted to dive into the process with everything I had, not hold back a pound, as Rudy Ray Moore might say.
And that is what I did. I have written about the process in another post if you are interested. It was one of the more transformational experiences of my life, with me receiving the imprimatur of my group, my supervisors, the Commission on Ministry, the Standing Committee, and finally the Bishop. Did I mention anything about “process”?
So that is the setup for my brief story around Easter.
As a newly ordained transitional deacon on Feb. 23rd, I was designated to have a special part in the Easter Vigil liturgy at the Cathedral, serving Bishop Judson Child, who was now the Diocesan Bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta. The deacon is designated to chant an ancient hymn called the Exultutet, which recounts the mighty acts of God in redeeming the people of Israel, bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, sustaining them through the wilderness, leading them to the Promised Land. It connects that Exodus journey to the Paschal Mystery of Christ going through death through crucifixion, waiting in vigil for three days for the cosmic redemption of death with the Resurrection. The Exultet is gorgeous poetry set to a series of tones that climb up and down the scale, a challenge to even an experienced singer. And yet, I was the one scheduled to do this, in front of God, a thousand of my closest friends…. and my mama. Lord, have mercy.
I began back in Advent, five months prior to the big day. I would go each morning to the organ in Mikell Chapel and play the notes of the Exultet, singing along in a slow chant, searching for tone and pace. Bob Simpson, the Choirmaster gave me time to coach me, generously giving me his skills in the vocal arts, pushing me for precision, but encouraging me along the way with reassurance. Sometimes, I felt like Bob was observing me as a drowning man in a roaring sea, as he encouraged me to keep at it, don’t give up! Gurgle.
The night of the Easter Vigil arrived, and I was a nervous wreck. I had gotten to the Cathedral early to go through the chant one last time. I put on my vestments early. I could not tell if the weight of the vestment was from the cloth-of-gold fabric, something we bring out on high feast days, or if it was just the weight of the moment. Probably both.
I was pacing, something I never do, but pacing, trying to gather my thoughts, using my old tricks of meditation to calm my young self down. Other clergy were slowly gathering, speaking softly, appropriate to the moment of this Vigil. And I continued to pace.
Suddenly Bishop Child appeared, with his gold cope (cape) and staff (crozier). I have never met another person who loved being a bishop more than him. It was his joy. I was so anxious that I would not do well, my pacing increased as he came into the vesting room, ready to go. He had taken on a father-like role in my life, having sponsored me, ordained me, and then mentored me in my formation to the priesthood. He provided funds for me to go to Sewanee to study with the leading liturgical scholar in the Episcopal church. I owed him big time.
He obviously picked up on my nervousness. He approached me on my right side, grabbing the sleeve of my vestment in his hands, pulling me toward him, firmly. He was right in my face, sort of like the proverbial Seinfeldian dreaded “close talker”.
I will never forget the pregnant moment. He looked at me piercingly with his eyes and then he said: If you screw up the Exultet, you will screw up my Easter. Don’t screw up my Easter!
Dear reader, know that I am cleaning up the specific word he used. It was shocking to hear that word come out of the Bishop’s mouth, particularly with the backdrop of this most holy day.
The effect of the message was first shock, and then hilarity. He and I both were laughing deeply, breaking the tension, I imagine, for both of us. It was true, at least for me. My nerves receded, I was able to be really present, ready to chant that Exultet like it had never been chanted before.
Truth is, Bishop Child knew me, the way I was wired, and took the time and energy and focus and risk to give me what I needed. He knew exactly what he was doing, and it worked.
We talked later about it, and he laughed as the characteristically rubbed his hands together as if the director of a play that went just as he planned.
As you can imagine, I think of that moment every Easter, particularly at the Vigil. In that moment, I sensed the hilarity of the disciples in the surprise of the resurrected Jesus, of life emerging from the tomb of fear and resignation.
But, more importantly, I knew intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, that I, indeed, had found my home. What a blessing it was that day, and continues to be.
This Easter season, I would wish that for you, wherever you are lucky enough, or blessed, to find it. Blessings.