In o’er 40 years of ordained ministry…
How oft has it happened, in settings public,
when people asked me: “What do you do?”
and when I answered, they changed the subject?
Long ago, I learned never to judge their intent (as if I could know!).
Did they have futile or, worse, sorrowful experiences with institutional
(which, depending on one’s point of view,
is “organized” or “disorganized”) religion?
Or was their formative religious or spiritual introduction
too doctrinaire and objectionable;
more a prison than guiding instruction
or too laissez-faire and impracticable;
less-than-useless in the face of life’s hard questions?
Or did they see me as a “professionally-pious,” “holier-than-thou” person
thus, someone living (dying!) to engage them in conversation about religion:
“Do you know Jesus?”
“Have you been saved?”
“Let me tell you about Jesus!”
Or any or all of the above or something else, something more or less;
thus, anything remotely religious
being the-last-thing they would choose to discuss?
I don’t know, for long ago, again, I say, I learned never to judge.
And how oft has it happened, in settings private,
(whether or not knowing who I was as a person,
knowing that I was a parson,
therefore, knowing what I did
or thinking they knew what I did,
which means I became a screen for the projections of their expectations,
their hopes that I would be trustworthy),
with little or no prompting word from me,
became in plain-sight, embodied epiphanies,
opening their hearts and minds, their spirits and souls
(not asking of me any wisdom, any answers,
thank goodness, for oft I had none,
but only that I listen),
telling, revealing unto me
their deepest concerns about life and meaning,
their darkest memories of grim circumstance and fickle chance,
of reckless choice and dire consequence,
of burgeoning guilt and bludgeoning shame?
Long ago, I learned to love, to long for these moments of intense encounter.
For, no matter what folk said, they,
even when speaking from the shadows of their most rueful experiences,
emitted the unmistakable, effulgent light of their being,
the unquenchable fire of their insatiable hungering for wholeness.
For, even with trembling fear and dread,
they, to a person, dared speak that one ringing, telling word of self
in all of its forms –
That ringing, telling, precious, sacred word? I
Whene’er then I heard and, now, I hear “I”,
this parson knew and knows that he was, is listening
and was, is bidden by God to pay heed to one
who sought and strove, seeks and strives,
as must we all,
to be and to become human.
3 thoughts on “Ministry Matters”
I love this poem. It’s enlightening to be the non-minister reader/listener and hear this experience laid out from the other side. I think your line about being a screen for the projection of others’ expectations (fears? guilts? living hopes? dashed hopes? uncertainties? disappointments? resurrections?) is so right on. To reveal that you are one who chose to and has spent a great portion of his life attending to the ultimate things in human life and understanding and in individual people’s lives is to invite, whether you intend to or not, a whole panoply of responses in others.
Some people you meet no doubt assume you understand a great deal about who they are and how they live; others probably assume you couldn’t possibly understand anything about their lives and their identities. Your profession/calling, probably more than any other, may instantly determine the footing you are on with any person you encounter who learns of it. I had never considered this particular gift/burden of being a human being who also happens to be a minister.
This now brings to mind our first morning at Clevedale when we were sitting in the dining room, and you walked in with the coffee pot. In our subsequent conversation you revealed that you were an Episcopal priest. I recall my own heart lifting to that piece of information, instantly making certain assumptions about who you were and how you had lived because of that one important piece of your background, making assumptions also about the ways in which I might relate to you because of it. It’s extraordinary now to hear your testimony that your hearing of the word “I” from those you meet calls up once again your calling, situates you in some sense in “minister-mode,” brings your relationship to the One who called you into your conversation with the stranger, the friend, the parishioner, the family member. That certainly has been borne out by every interaction I have had with you, that your attention is focused on the “I” that you hear and the words that follow. Not only attention, but blessing, prayer perhaps, an attentiveness that goes beyond sense to spirit, to intention.
Would that we could all be conscious of a calling to minister to our fellow human beings in every interaction. How we hear “I” from anyone might be so different, might alert us to how should attend, with what attitude, with what purpose. Thank you, Paul, for illuminating an aspect and a possibility of relationship I had never before considered and for giving me the chance to to re-think and re-envision my own responses in every human encounter.
With gratitude and love, as always,
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So this made me tear up….I’m not sure why…BUT the first thing that popped into my mind as I read, and after I finished reading this was my first encounter with you. I had heard you preach once, and from afar thought “wow”, I wonder what it’s like to be a member of his church EVERY Sunday. When we actually met a few years later, I was at my worst… my church was closing and my aunt was dying. But you said some words of comfort and you gave me a hug. I felt like I was the only person on earth with you at that moment. At that moment, I claimed you as my priest. I remember too all of the drama during the Losses and New Beginnings class as my classmates kept trying to determine which church I was going to select to attend when Nativity closed. I knew all along I would become a member of St. Mark’s. What’s so interesting to me about your ministry is how much ENERGY it must take to “feel” and “listen” to everyone, yet you must have done it millions of times by now in all these years … I say that because I’m not the only person who felt that they were the only person on earth when speaking to you. I’ve spoken with others about it. You can be tough too, but what most people remember about one on one encounters with you is that “they matter” and at the time they are talking with you they are “the only one that matters”… Not sure I could keep that up over all these years. So as I’ve said to you many times, some of your legacy will be that you made people feel special even when / if you didn’t feel special about yourself at the time. That’s pretty special in my book.
My Dearest Karen and Loretta,
As always I am honored by you and your responses – that you read what I write and that you reflect and share your musings that, somehow, by some divine stirrings, were evoked within you by my humble words. As always, I thank you.
For over 40 years, I’ve considered it a privilege to serve in priestly ministry. I’ve also considered it a calling far surpassing the…any measure of my worthiness. For, indeed, I have none.
(In this, I recall, back in the day of my ordinations, there was a line in the liturgy – that since, for good, honest cause, has been omitted – in which the bishop would inquire of the gathered community in reference to the ordinand, “Is he worthy?” to which the congregation would reply, presumably with vigor, “He is worthy!”)
In this surpassing awareness of my flaws, my lack, I find it revivifying, ennobling to have folk share with me the depths of their truths. For in their renderings of self and soul, not to me, of course, but to me as an intermediary of God, I, somehow, sense that I have been made worthy via the sacredness of their self-sacrificial offerings of their life’s stories…
Ah, words fail as I strive, though, surely, failing to capture in words this earthly-heavenly dynamic. What…all I do know is that I am blessed to be of service, any service in the work of being and becoming human.
Love you two, always and in all ways, Paul
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