Saturday, December 01, 2007

Wounded and Bold

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 2007

Wounded and Bold

In these last few weeks as I prepare to be ordained to the priesthood, I have been spending some time reflecting on how exactly I have gotten to this major landmark in my life. I remember one time years ago my father once said that in our lives we seem to go from one random event to another, but at certain points we can look back and see that what seemed random at the time was actually part of a journey with definite shape and purpose. I am not sure now when and why he said that, but having a gotten a little older and hopefully having gained some perspective, I can see that he was right. As I look back I also realize that it is the people we encounter even more than the events we experience that make our journeys unique.

An offhand remark in the faculty room at St. Peter’s Prep led Sue and me to St. Paul’s Church in Jersey City seven years ago. It was there in that beautiful wood frame Victorian church that we found the spiritual food that we needed so much. It was also at St. Paul’s where I met two of my great friends and clergy role models. More than once they have half-jokingly referred to themselves as my spiritual father and grandfather.

I can vividly remember how stunned and moved I was by the exchange of the peace that first Sunday at St. Paul’s. Frankly, Sue and I were a little overwhelmed by the exuberance and warmth of the congregation. These people seemed genuinely happy to be in church together! Although we were sitting in the back of the church, the priest approached us, extended his hand and said, “I’m Dave Hamilton, welcome to St. Paul’s.”

And so began one of the closest friendships of my life.

I believe that my sense of vocation was reawakened by the example of Dave’s priesthood. At St. Paul’s he never allowed himself to be placed on a pedestal. Instead, there was always a powerful sense of authenticity in his ministry, and especially in his preaching. Although he was a strong leader, there was always the honest acknowledgement that he was like us - a broken person trying to faithfully follow the way of Jesus Christ. Later when I read Henri Nouwen’s classic book The Wounded Healer I immediately thought of Dave – this man who had found great success in a thriving suburban parish only to painfully lose it all. Yet, when all seemed lost, he recovered and was gloriously reborn as a city priest, first at Trinity+St. Philip’s Cathedral and then at St. Paul’s. Dave, very open about his alcoholism and recovery, did not dwell on his wounds in self-absorption but rather honestly allowed his wounds to shape his ministry. It is a challenging model, but the only way to authentic ministry.

I have also been profoundly shaped by my spiritual grandfather, the rector emeritus at St. Paul’s, Frank Carr. Although he is more than twice my age, over the years he and I have also developed a close friendship. His example encourages me to be bold in my ministry. When he was graduating from seminary in the early 1950s, the bishop of Montana (then still an outpost of the Wild West) asked if any of the newly-minted Episcopal deacons had the boldness to go minister in the frontier. Only Frank Carr, born and raised in Boston, answered the call went west. He began a ministry that took him to Olympia, Beverly Hills, Ft. Worth and finally Jersey City. In addition to his example of boldness, Frank has also given me what I think is the best definition of the Christian life. He always says it is a life of love, forgiveness and service. Even today, burdened with blindness and other ills, he continues to live out the Christian life and his ordination vows as he ministers to a large network of people across the country and through a deep prayer life.

My ordination gives me a good occasion to reflect on Dave and Frank and the many other people who have given my journey its distinctive shape. Maybe this month, as a new church year begins and a calendar year draws to a close, we can all reflect on the people who have been with us – and continue to be with us – as we follow the way of Jesus Christ. And, since in our baptism we are all called to be ministers, maybe this month we can acknowledge our own wounds and go forth to love, forgive, and serve with authenticity and boldness.