Glad I Said “Yes” When I Did Not Know What I Was Doing
Greetings to Connie Sowah, Tom Garrison, and Jennifer Walding
On the Occasion of your Ordination to the Priesthood
June 20, 2015
George H. Martin
(Note: I’m sharing this reflection with a wider audience because it’s my story, and one I haven’t exactly told in this way, until now. The three receiving this directly will be ordained as priests to serve at Ss. Martha and Mary Episcopal Church in Eagan MN. It’s the church I helped start in 1986 when we began with one family. The church went through some challenging times, but now with this kind of ordained leadership team in place it has a whole new future ahead for its ministry. Praise the Lord!)
Fifty years ago I was starting Clinical Pastoral Education at the Ossawatomie State Hospital in southeastern Kansas, having completed my Junior year in seminary at Bexley Hall. God had taken some extra-ordinary steps to get me to seminary. I was originally headed off to study sociology at the University of Buffalo. In April of the previous year (our last days at college) newly married to Caroline and both of us happy to get our degrees from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, a phone call came from the Dean of Bexley Hall Seminary. It’s the seminary connected at that time to Kenyon College in Ohio. I’d been there for church camp but wondered why would he be calling me? I didn’t have a clue.
“Ah, George,” he began, “This is Dean Thorp at Bexley Hall Semiary. We have your name from the Rockefeller Foundation people where you had applied for a scholarship. Now I know they didn’t offer you a scholarship to attend any seminary of your choice, but we would love to have you come and study with us at Bexley Hall. Would you and your wife come for a weekend so we can meet you and show you the seminary?”
You might be tempted to say, “Well the rest is history!” But that’s not the case. Yes, I did accept the offer of a free year’s education, but I never thought I’d stay beyond the year. As that first year of seminary started to draw to a close, though, I had to make a decision. Was it that first baby that was on the way? Perhaps. Caroline and I also had many friends there in that seminary community. Truth be told, I was still wrestling with a sense of call, but decided to take my questions into another year of study.
I still had no real idea what I was doing, and certainly had no idea what my ministry would look like in the years that would follow seminary. In those days, though, at least for those of us from the Diocese of Ohio we knew what the next two or three years would bring. The bishop would send us to a parish where we would be a curate. Bishop Burroughs made this quite clear to me when he’d heard that I had interviewed with a priest at a large church in another diocese. “Ah George!” he began in a tone different from that of Dean Thorp. “You said you interviewed with a priest in another diocese. But I thought you wanted to be ordained.” To that I replied, “Yes sir. I do.” It was clear that ordination meant starting ministry in his diocese or not at all. The bishop told us we would be moving to Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio (think Akron) where I would be a curate at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Two years later I left that curacy and was finally headed off to graduate school to study sociology. This took us to Lincoln Nebraska. In the back of my mind I wasn’t exactly leaving ordained ministry, but I was sure I was called only to be part-time priest but a full-time scholar teaching in a university. As you know God had other plans for me. That is the way it is for many of us.
Here on the eve of your ordination I’m sure you look back on your lives and look at a curious, twisted, sometimes challenging set of paths that each of you are bringing to this new chapter in your lives. I don’t want to offer scary words: but it’s a story that will continue as you serve as priests in the church.
Your ordination on June 20th is one that I am so pleased to attend. The truth of the matter is that I made it a point in my years of ministry to attend as many ordinations as I could. More often than not I was still wrestling in some way with God’s call to me, and hoping that by listening again to the lessons, the ordination promises and vows, and participating in the prayers I’d get a clearer sense of God’s call. You think after 50 years I’d get more clarity, wouldn’t you? The God who spoke from a burning bush and whose voice was there in a smoky temple in the midst of flying birds calls forth a response, but it doesn’t mean it’s fully comprehended. “Just go!” And so, some us say, “Yes”, but without fully understanding what it will mean and certainly where the Lord will take us.
I was re-reading a book by Eugene Peterson (translator of The Message Bible) titled “Working the Angles: the Shape of Pastoral Ministry.” I wish he’d called it “Working with Angels” but then he knows better from years as a pastor. As a new priest you’ll invite people to offer prayer in the context of “angels and archangels” but also you will be placing bread in empty hands that have known brokenness, questions, doubts, and fears. Actually, I must admit that for me being a priest has everything to do with the hands: my hands and how they play in the sacramental life of faith, and then the hands that reach for those sacramental actions that speak louder than any words.
Peterson offered a reflection on Psalm 40:1-11 in this book that I think is helpful for any us considering what I means to respond to God’s call and to proclaim God in the midst of people who are hurting, searching, or lost. What we are privileged to offer as priests standing at the altar is a story of failure where God meets death with life. There is this powerful narrative that embraces us at the deepest levels of our life, way beyond cognition, because the word of God that gives life is dug into us. Peterson says that the proper translation of the Hebrew in Psalm 40.6 isn’t “you have given me an open ear.” (NRSV) He translate the Hebrew as “you have dug into me.” It’s not so much comprehension or knowledge but a kind of compulsive obedience that leads us into saying “Yes” to a call to ministry.
It’s helpful, I think, to know that priesthood is more about doing than speaking. Yes we offer the sacramental prayers, but how we go about that presiding, and what sensibility we bring to it and to those present in worship is what really matters. We are also priests beyond Sunday morning worship. You will be called as priest to show up at times and places, and not always when it’s convenient or easy. There will be some joyful times of blessing and celebration, but there will also be awkward and even terrifying times when you will feel helpless. You’re not.
Keep the oil of unction, nearby, but not just as a tool of the trade. You’ll be in pastoral ministry when you really will be at a loss for words. Don’t try to speak, but be ready to offer the sacrament if it seems right. For someone fearful of what’s next while facing surgery or even their death it is that oil and those prayers that are mysterious and efficacious. You make the sign of the cross with that oil and then declare that is all about God’s presence at this very moment. (Be sure to memorize those prayers from the prayer book that have to do with anointing and with laying on of hands.)
Your hands are important the sacrament of healing, but also in other sacramental acts that are part of this ministry. As a priest you have the special responsibility to bless the community about to go into the world which is to remind them to go with God and look for God in all parts of life. A special priestly charge for blessing is found in the marriage rite. Take you time when you wrap the hands of the couple in your stole. You can tell them what this means at the rehearsal. You are serving the Lord with this stole and they can serve the Lord in their marriage. In another context, at a funeral at the graveside, your hands can carry real dirt that becomes a cross when carefully placed on a casket. Maybe a few days before you were conducting the funeral your hands were swishing through the water when it was time to bless the water for a baptism. At that service you took the oil of chrism and marked the forehead of the newly baptized, with the sign of the cross, as Christ’s own forever.
Most importantly in terms of the regular life of priest serving in a congregation are the hands of those reaching for the holy bread. One story relating to Ss. Martha and Mary comes to mind. One Sunday I looked around just before receiving communion and realized we were short one Eucharistic minister to offer the bread. I spotted Aaron Walding (about 16 years old at the time) sitting in the front row. He knew the routine and came forward as I signaled for his help. I placed the plate of communion bread in his hands but noticed that each of his ten fingers wore some different shade of nail polish. There were even carefully drawn artistic designs on a few fingers. I smiled to myself and rejoiced to know the added gift of God all would receive that day from the hands of Aaron.
Speaking of receiving the Eucharist makes me mindful of a practice we followed at Ss. Martha and Mary in those days. Those of us who served communion received bread and wine at the end—after we had served all the people. I know it violates a rubric in the prayer book, but I think it’s true to the spirit of Jesus. “I came not to be served, but to serve.” My practice on this stems from a little book by a Roman Catholic priest ( Louis Everly) who talked about a time at a Papal mass when there were hundreds and then more than a thousand who came forward. They started breaking the wafers in half and then in quarters. And at the end about 75 people received nothing, for all the bread they had to consecrate was gone. One astute lay person said, “There would have been enough, had the clergy waited.” So often in church meetings and worship services we clergy often also get the best seats. I’m not sure Jesus would approve.
That all three of you are connected to Ss. Martha and Mary, and that your ordination keeps you part of it’s ongoing story pleases me immensely. I can’t remember exactly when our paths first crossed, but I have known Tom and Mary and their boys the longest as they were part of St. Luke’s prior to my accepting the call to help plant a church in Eagan. A special tie that I have with Tom is getting to know his dad, Ben, quite well. Ben was a Methodist minister with a secret love of the Episcopal church. He also served in Seward Nebraska where Caroline is from.
Both Connie and Jennifer came in the early days of Ss. Martha and Mary. You know about setting up chairs, micro-waving frozen chrism oil, and even growing and harvesting pumpkins that we gave away.
The life of a congregation can be a crazy thing. No matter how messed things may get, no matter how dark the days or uncertain it’s future, one thing is sure in our practice of the Jesus story: we gather to break bread at the Lord’s table. This is certain for the days to come at Ss. Martha and Mary as you become it’s priests. What a glorious gift this is. Praise the Lord. Thanks be to God.