On Tuesday, June 17, I marked 20 years of service to the Church as a deacon and 19 as a priest. The day passed quickly, for it was a busy one. Morning Prayer was followed by a brief, celebratory breakfast prepared by a volunteer. That was succeeded by a trip to Trenton for the monthly Deans' meeting with the Bishop and Canon to the Ordinary...and then on the drive back I ordered a pig for a roast at the parish this coming weekend. After I got back to the office, I was on the phone with some pastoral matters, and then spent some time on the parish website and doing some planning for next year's Convocation Clericus meetings. I went home for dinner with my wife, Laura and then headed back to church for the monthly Finance Ministry meeting.
All that is not intended to impress the reader with how "busy" life as a priest can be, but rather to offer up the impression of just how varied "the call" can be as it is lived out in real time. I can look back on the last two decades (plus, if you also count time in formation), and cannot remember a day that was anything like predictable. It is a varied life, truly, and one that lends itself to folk who are willing to take the day (and the people who walk into it) as it comes. Sometimes, I think, I just might be getting a handle on that ideal....some days I know I am far, far from it....
And yet, one certainty continues to persist....that sense of call, a call to a continual "becoming" in Christ. For me, and others like me that God and the Church have set apart for ordained ministry, that means vocational work. I don't say "career" anymore, partly because the notion of career has not been a healthy one for me to dwell too much upon...and chiefly because my sense of being ordained has changed over the past two decades. I am not the man I was when called to the service of the Church so many years ago; and the Church I serve in the present does not much resemble the one I entered into on those June 17 days in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Still, perspective is everything. It is as important to remember where/when you have come from as it is to dream and wonder about where and to what God might next be calling you.
So, last night, as I entered into the Finance Ministry meeting, I received a question that I have been asked to answer a number of times in the past: "How did you know that you were called to be a priest?"
Hard to answer.
It is a great question because it opens up a whole, wonderful moment between the one who asks and the one who answers about what it is like to accept a call to a life that is bound to service in God's Church. It is hard to answer, at least for me, because I can look back and see that the balance of my life, up to the time I entered into orders, represents a rather circuitous and "God-guided" path that brings me to the here and now. From my family of origin, I was given examples of lives committed to service and formation. My parents, and much of my family, are educators or are involved in education as all levels. My paternal grandparents ran a funeral home. My maternal grandfather was a passionate church organist and choir director who taught me to "sit and listen" when gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson were singing on the records he played for us on the "hi-fi" on his back porch, wedged between piano and ranks of orchid and flowers (he was also a passionate gardener...another love of mine as an adult). I had teachers, scout leaders, youth group counselors, friends, pastors, guides and mentors who saw something in me that pointed in that direction....and yet......
....and yet, I didn't KNOW until much later. When I was in my early twenties and in college, my college chaplain asked me if I had even thought of ordained ministry as a possible path in life. "No," was my shaky answer. I hadn't, at least not consciously. Still, from that day on the thought kept surfacing...it was there throughout the fits and starts of the post-college pilgrimage of confusion I weathered. It was there through a difficult in take process in my home diocese. It was there in the bishop committing to me and a couple of others as he took a personal stake in our entry into discernment and seminary training. It was there with me during bleak watches while on night call at hospitals as a chaplain trainee. It was there out on mission in the Midwest at an Indian reservation.
It was there...until a moment on this day (twice) 20 and 19 years ago when the bishop, having laid out what life as one called to the deaconate and the priesthood in the Episcopal Church looks like, asked, "My brother, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a deacon/to this priesthood?"
That, truly, is when I "knew."
That is also when I answered, from the core of my being, "I believe I am so called."
I wasn't prepared for that moment, and really can anyone be prepared? When I knew, I affirmed everything that God had manifested in my life to that point, acknowledged that this ordination was not mine, but that it and I now belonged to something greater than any ambition or desire I might harbor ever again....that all I had learned, everything I had and have been given and all the people I am blessed to know and learn from are what guided me to that moment, have sustained me thus far...and will give me what I need to continue to serve.
But then, honestly, that is something that God in Christ offers to all, no matter the nature or identity of the call. It is something each of us can accept, if we are willing to answer the question....
....and the answer is the same for all of us in our Baptism.....
"I believe I am so called."
So, I ask you....
How did you know?