April 15, 2018

A poetic reflection on 40 years as an Episcopal priest

Sunday, 1-15-17 before MLK Evensong, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, SC

How does one…how do I measure my vocation
in service of the God I believe and love?

Do I count the mere number of years?
If so, which description
sounds better
to bolster
my sense of self (alway a temptation!)?
40? 2 score? 10×4?

Or in words
(now, countless
and, I pray, most not useless),
written and spoken
in sermons,
in conversations, personal and pastoral,
in innumerable audiences and assemblies,
meetings and gatherings?

Or in early-morning risings
after late-night retirings;
the hours between toiling
o’er ceaseless tasks
or day-dreaming
about how to do…to be better
(not more successful, more efficient so to do…to be more,
but rather, more faithful so to belong more to God)?

Or in sun’s daily-dawnings that came too soon
after restless, tempest-tossed nights of little…no sleep;
whilst pondering, praying
for the ailing, suffering, and dying,
for this or that soul or circumstance?

Or in life’s little deaths of my best self (all presaging
that inexorable moment of final passing):
of prayers unprayed (the devil of self-reliance obeyed);
of promises (to do or not to do something
or to be or not to be someone, somewhere, somehow) betrayed;
of precious, kindly words, more sentimental than loving,
to spare the tenderhearted from truth,
still, deeper truth, to spare myself the discomfort of bearing painful truth;
of pitiless, hurtful words when my preference and prejudice gave voice to my ill-est will?

Or in heart-bearing, soul-wearing the worries and woes of others shared confidentially;
entrusted to the forever-unutterable-quiet of my sealed-lips of secrecy?

Or in times of disregard of kith and kin
for the sake of the ever-ready apologia of never-ending-ministry;
the esteem of those I served to win
(and all the while, straining the bonds of truest charity
with the ones whose hands will close near and fast
upon mine when I, one day, close my eyes last)?

How do I measure?

In all these ways and more than I can render
(or, perhaps, dare remember).
Yet most in my o’erwhelming failures,
commending, commanding that I trust in Divine mercy’s boundless treasure.


Photograph by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy: Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, SC, January 15, 2017, prior to the service of Evensong on the occasion of the annual celebration of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.

4 thoughts on “April 15, 2018

  1. Dear Paul,

    Forty years in ministry. Wow! I’m sitting here thinking what that must mean in terms of energy, ideas, time, effort, worry, anticipation, joy, sorrow, frustration, disappointment, but most of all, love expended. If it could be painted on a canvas, what would it look like? If it could be sung in a choral work, what would it sound like? If it could be danced in a dance, what would the moves be?

    That means something, Paul. It means that your good heart and wonderful mind have touched this world and helped it be better for all that time. It means that you have mediated the heart of Love to thousands of people, not crowds of people, but each individual human being making up those thousands. Your eyes have met each one’s eyes. Your words have been taken in by each one’s individual ears and memories. Your hands have touched each individual’s hands and shoulders. You have listened and nodded and spoken and laughed and cried with each one of those people.

    I know also that whether you are in church or are just living your life, you are in ministry. At Clevedale, you bring the coffee pot into the dining room and pour coffee, but you also bring your minister’s heart with you and bless each person sitting at a table. You pour a glass of wine in the late afternoon for someone who has just buried her mother and her brother and make a space and time for her by listening to her words about what it means to have done that. You and your beloved Pontheolla create a space for blessing and fill it to the brim with hospitality and welcome and warmth. That’s all ministry, isn’t it?

    I confess I feel a little overwhelmed when I think of what it means for you to have been in ministry for forty years. I hope you can feel that bit of overwhelm-ment too, Paul. What you have done and what you do every day matters so much to the world. You stand with God’s love in your outstretched hand and offer it to all comers, whether in church, or in this blog, or at Clevedale, or on vacation, or wherever you go. I know that about you.

    Congratulations doesn’t seem to be quite the right thing to say on this occasion, although you have every right to be proud. I will simply say “Thank you, Paul,” for taking up the mantle of what I believe you were born to be and wearing it faithfully and gracefully. The world has needed and needs you still, every day.

    Much love,



  2. Ah, my dear sister Karen, again, per your norm, you are so…too kind to me! Thank you.

    And, yes, what Pontheolla and I do at Clevedale is ministry. In this, I thank you especially for your wondrously moving recount of the time you, Ted, and Emilia graced this house.

    And, “overwhelm-ment”, ’tis a fine, fitting word, which, doubtless, I shall employ in time to come!

    And, truth be told, your words cause, call me to reflect afresh on these past 40 years. For, in reading your response to my post, I was given pause to consider that each day of the past 40 years presented itself as a day, which, o’er time, has been added to all the days to yield 40 years. I write this so to say that I’m not sure at all that I, in the beginning, oft (ever!) looked ahead seeking to imagine where and how I’d be at, say, 5…10…15…20…etc. years. Again, I went day by day.

    Love you,


  3. I can’t add much of anything to the extraordinary words Karen wrote. What I’ll say is that you’ve had an incredible career, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s all meant to you and to all of those you’ve served. I loved the words you wrote, and the photo Pontheolla took. I’d love to see a photo of you 40 years ago and now in the same pose, which many people do for posterity. I’d love to see how everything has matured about you, and I’m guessing it will say a great deal about you and your career as the words you wrote in this blog. Be proud of all that you’ve accomplished and all the people you’ve ministered to. I wish I could capture one word that would sum up your ministry, but there isn’t one word that can do that.
    Much love


  4. I agree, Loretta, I don’t have one word that can sum up 40 years. And, with the dear folk of Epiphany, Laurens, the ministry, in a formal sense (given Karen’s observation about Clevedale being ministry; a view with which I agree) continues.

    Now, 3+ years after retirement, on immediate reflection, I do not believe I retired too soon, for I was ready to be done with the daily adminis-trivia (not that parish administration is trivial, but it can be and oft was tedious) of parish life and management, BUT I also believe I was not done with the preaching-teaching-pastoral aspects (always my favorites) of ministry. So, here I am, and, as the McDonald’s jingle has it: And lovin’ it!


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