Monday, January 21, 2013

Twenty years of following the Good Shepherd

This Friday will mark the twentieth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood.  I'll celebrate that day by chairing the committee which this week is interviewing eleven men and women who believe that they are called to the priesthood.  We only have spots for five postulants in next year's seminary class, and I will spend the weekend on the phone with six persons telling them them that their call to the priesthood has not been affirmed.  It is one of my least favorite things to do in ministry.

I am especially mindful of the pain, disappointment, confusion, even anger this news can cause.  I've been told no three times in the past few years when I've allowed my name to be put forward as bishop.  The answer I've received each time is that I'm called to serve as a priest and to serve at St. Mary's.  Returning from Sabbatical this month, each day I am more joy-filled that this is the place that is my home.

This will be the last year I will serve on the Commission on Ministry.  I among the last of a group who served before term limits.  This year will be my nineteenth year to serve, and I imagine that I have read well over two hundred spiritual autobiographies. It is very holy work.

This week is my last time to interview those hoping to begin the ordination process.  I am especially treasuring each of the eleven interviews I've done this past month.  It is the best ministry in the world to hear how God is working through ordinary yet extraordinary men and women.  I am paying special attention to these stories.

This anniversary week, I also served at a friend's ordination to the priesthood.  I've known this woman for most of my twenty years of ordained ministry, before she was even an Episcopalian.  She worked with a dear friend, and through the twists and turns of the Spirit, I ended up being her sponsoring priest.

As I was talking with a friend after the ordination, she told me that she was struck by the fact that when Viki stood before the bishop for her examination, how she stood all by herself.   Yes, the congregation was full to the brim with people who loved her, but in the end, it was Viki.  All alone. Saying words that would change her life forever.

The Gospel we heard at Viki's ordination were words from John 10 about Jesus being the Good Shepherd.  The preacher noted that all too often we clergy place ourselves in the place of the Good Shepherd and consider ourselves to be responsible for a flock of sheep.  We even use the word "flock" to talk about congregations.  The preacher said that the way she read the passage was that there was only one Good Shepherd, Jesus the Christ, and the best that all of us could ever be were sheep.  She reminded us that sheep, unlike cattle which are driven from the rear, are led by a shepherd we trust to follow.

It is true indeed that no matter how many sheep are with us on our journey, and I am very thankful to be with a huge flock of sheep, that in truth it is only us, one by one, following the shepherd.

At ordination, when I stood alone before the church and bravely said that yes, I was called to be a priest, I am not certain how clear I was that it was something that I could only do by following the one Good Shepherd. Perhaps the very best criteria we can have for being a priest is this:  Do you know how to follow and trust Christ alone?

For Viki, new priest in the Church, for the eleven men and women in the Diocese of Texas offering themselves to serve the Church as priests, and especially the six (or more) who will be told no, my heartfelt prayers are offered. May we all hear the voice of the Good Shepherd who always calls each of us by name, with love that carries us across all pastures green and not so green.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Arise! Shine! We Travel!

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is upon you.

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.  They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

These words from Isaiah 60 were written after the exiled Israelites had returned to Jerusalem from seventy or so years in captivity in Babylon, and things were not as they hoped.  The temple and the city walls were in ruins, and the people who had been left behind had fallen away from the faith.

The prophet has a word of hope for the returning exiles.  Things will get better.  Whether or not it may look like it now, the light has come. The glory of God is upon you.  Instead of war horses trampling your cities, camels, those beasts of trade, will come from the south to bring the finest of goods, and economic prosperity will return. Most important of all--God's name will be praised.

When I was on my Sabbatical trip to the Israeli and Jordanian wilderness, I saw lots of camels.  Our first night in the wilderness, in the Negev, as soon as we arrived at our camp, before we went to our shelters, we were placed in twos on camels for a trip out into the rocky, uneven terrain.

The camels kneel so that one can get on, none too gracefully for the camel or for me, and it is with quite a jerk that they rise to walking position.  Camels travel about nine miles an hour and can easily go up and down hills--though not that easily for those trying to stay on.  I'm told they can carry five hundred pounds of cargo, so Sister Pilar, a Roman Catholic nun from Spain, and I met the weight restriction.
It is because of the camels' ability to carry large loads over very difficult terrain with little water and food made them the preferred cargo vehicle in the Holy Land for thousands of years.

When we were traveling around the wilderness for nearly two weeks, camels were a common sight. In fact, in the same way that here in Texas we have signs warning about deer and cows crossing roads, there were frequent signs to watch out for traveling camels.

When we in Wadi-Rum, a wilderness area in Jordan, we traveled out in the no-road area in the back of small pick up trucks, bouncing as we went (we were probably disobeying every safety concern that we'd have had in the States).  From time to time, Bedouins and their camels went past us.  I suspect we were the more unfamiliar sight.

I imagine that it was this passage from Isaiah, about the Lord's presence with tangible signs of camels and gold and frankincense, that colors our reading about the coming of the Wise Ones to see the baby Jesus bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  The three gifts have morphed into three Wise Ones, and the three are always pictured riding to Bethlehem on camels, although these last two details (number of visitors and camels) are not included in Matthew's account of the visit.

When I was studying in the Holy Land, it was proposed that that the Wise Ones, rather than coming from Persia, might have instead traveled the Spice Road towards Bethlehem via Petra, south of Jerusalem in present day Jordan, east of the Dead Sea.  There are pictures of camels carved on the walls of sheer rock when walks into that long hidden city.  They would have then followed the well traveled road to Avdad, in modern day Israel, far south in the Negev.  That these Wise Ones might have come from the east and south, from present day Saudi Arabia (Midian) or Egypt (Ephah) or Ethiopia (Sheba), make the passage heard from Isaiah in many churches this feast of the Epiphany a bit more thought-provoking.  Yes?

I travel to St. Mary's tomorrow for my first Sunday since August.  Hopefully I am more wise.  Hopefully I'll bring gifts to share.  I know that I'll meet the Presence of Christ in the people I have missed so very much.  Like the Wise Ones who traveled home by a different way, we'll be listening for the road that God is calling us to travel next.