Saturday, July 31, 2010

Discernment on the Uneven Road

Discernment on the Uneven Road

A Message to the People of Grace Church in Madison, NJ

July 2010

Throughout the ordination process I was asked over and over why exactly I wanted to be – or felt called to be – a priest. For me, the answer was, and continues to be, because I can’t think of a more exciting and fulfilling way to spend my life than building and leading a Christian community. My dream has been to minister in a place where we walk together on the uneven road of life, day after day, year after year. While I was in seminary and imagined the future, I saw myself settling in at a small urban parish and throwing myself into building a community that would be a sign of God’s loving presence both for the congregation and for the neighborhood.

As a lifelong city-dweller, of course I knew for sure that I would be working in an urban church. Yet, apparently God had other, suburban, ideas and fortunately I was just barely open enough to the gift God had in mind for me. It is difficult to find adequate words to capture how I am feeling as my three years at Grace Church draw to a close. In an unexpected place, God has fulfilled my dream of ministering in a church where we have walked together on the uneven road of life: celebrating new life, facing fears, mourning loss, and through it all, praying and singing together. Here in Madison, I have had the joyous privilege of helping to build with you a community that in so many ways truly is a sign of God’s loving presence. Many of you remember that I was ordained a priest at Grace Church in December, 2007. The truth is, however, that my entire time with you has felt like ordination – God and the community blessing me with the ever-deepening gift of priesthood.

From our arrival at Grace, Sue and I have known that, like all the previous curates and their spouses, we were only passing through. We stored our moving boxes in the garage at Surrey Lane and never quite forgot that they were there waiting to be filled again and brought with us to a yet unknown destination. When I imagined my next step, I knew for sure that I would be at some other church in the Diocese of Newark or maybe one of the surrounding dioceses. After all, nearly all of our family and friends live around here.

Apparently some people never learn. When I first heard about the position as chaplain at the University of Florida and rector of St. Michael’s in Gainesville, I initially rejected it out of hand. Moving to Florida was out of the question. But, then I heard this nagging, annoying little voice in my head reminding me of all of my sermons in which I’ve urged all of us to be open – even just a little - to the power of God. So, a little ashamed of my hypocrisy, I opened myself again to the possibility of the unknown and unexpected.

I was very surprised by what I found in Florida. I felt myself clicking with the bishop and other members of the diocesan staff. When I visited the Chapel of the Incarnation and the rest of the campus ministry complex, I was excited by what already exists there and what might be possible in the future. Gradually, the thought of ministering to students, faculty and staff at the University of Florida seemed to fit with my own background and interests. The other part of my job, serving as rector of St. Michael’s, presents an exciting challenge. This church was broken by schism a couple of years ago when a previous rector left with most of the congregation to set up a new Anglican church in Gainesville. As a stop-gap measure the previous chaplain at UF took charge of St. Michael’s. Sure enough, under her leadership, the church began to grow. My task is to continue that good work, to continue the healing and rebuilding that is already underway.

I quickly realized that this chaplain/rector position offers a unique and challenging opportunity. Sue made it clear she was on board with whatever decision I made. But, taking the position in Florida was an agonizing decision because it means moving away from our family and friends and leaving all of you at Grace Church. It was a spiritual exercise that finally convinced me to take the leap and accept this new challenge. Many of you know my admiration for Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th Century saint who founded the Society of Jesus and was a master of discernment. When faced with a difficult decision, Ignatius suggested imagining ourselves at the point of death and asking what choice we should have made.

When I imagined that scene, I realized that despite the very high cost, I would regret not taking this chance. I knew I would regret not being open to this unexpected opportunity. So, ready or not, here we go. In just a couple of weeks Sue and I will take our next steps on the uneven road of life, venturing into an unknown (and awfully humid) new life. Thanks to our summer study series St. Paul has been on my mind lately. His words to the church in Philippi capture my feelings for you, the church in Madison:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3-5)