Guillotine (Davies Tales #5)

“Step outside with me a minute.”

Aiden Davies looked up from tracing patterns in the Oriental rug. The priest gestured to the patio door. Davies stood up, smoothed his jacket, and walked outside.

Twenty-four hours earlier, he had boarded a plane in Nashville. The irony that it was Halloween weekend had not escaped him. He was flying to West Virginia to attend a meeting, at which no costume or mask would be tolerated. The Commission on Ministry awaited: in the space of a four hour meeting, they would form a recommendation for the Bishop as to whether Davies should be allowed to remain on the path to priesthood. This was another hurdle, a big one, in the overarching plan that he had only recently begun to cherish in his heart. He arrived at the motel and passed an uneasy night, a product of nerves and an unfamiliar bed. He had convinced himself that sleep was hopeless when…

…Davies was in the chambers of the Supreme Court…the bench was impossibly high…the faceless members of the Commission peered down at him…the bench was a rock wall…he checked his belay and started climbing…halfway up a door appeared…he walked through, the door shut behind him, and he heard the bolt slide home…the cell had two piles of old, grimy hay and a slit of a window high out of reach…a man in a ragged smock sat in the corner… “I can’t do it, Charles,” he said… “Who is Charles?” Davies asked…he looked down and saw his hands trussed with the climbing rope…he was on a cart in the midst of a screaming crowd…the same man caught his eye, turned, and walked away… “Mr. Carton,” Davies cried, “It’s supposed to be you.”…the sun glinted off something metal…

…Davies sat up, knuckled his eyes, and grabbed the bedside clock. 5:00am. The dream was gone. The meeting was in three hours. He got up, paced the room, attempted a few incoherent prayers. He showered, dressed, and ate cereal from a plastic disposable tub at the continental breakfast. At 7:30, he arrived at the retreat center. Horses watched him from behind a whitewashed fence. The mountains rose in the distance. As the fog lifted, the gray morning gave way to all the colors of autumn. This place is too beautiful a setting for defeat, Davies thought.

He walked through the open front door and stood in the hallway. He took a couple of deep breaths, smelled coffee, followed the scent down the hall, and poked his head through a doorway. There they were – no Supreme Court dais or headsman, just a dozen and a half folks, some in black clergy shirts and collars, others in suits or dresses, all with coffee. “Aiden, welcome,” said a woman near the door.

He recognized her from his stint as a camp counselor during the previous summer. “Hello,” he said, and his eyes swept the room. He knew almost half the group on sight. So that’s why the Bishop wanted me to spend the summer at Camp Madison. A tall, goatee-ed priest stood up and shook Davies’s hand. “Here’s the drill,” he said, “We have here both the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee. We’ll split into four groups, and you and the other three aspirants will have an hour with each group. Got it?”

“Yessir,” said Davies. The priest looked as his watch. “Okay, well, I’ll see you in a few hours. Don’t forget to breathe. There’s really no reason to be concerned.”

“That’s easy for you to say.” Davies tried to turn his grimace into a smile. Careful, you idiot: you’re not shooting the breeze after a campfire. But before he could gauge the priest’s reaction, the woman who first greeted Davies said, “You’ll be staying in here, dear.”

She patted the seat next to hers, and he sat down. The other three groups filed out of the room, leaving a small band clustered near Davies. “Will you open with prayer, please,” said the woman. Is this part of the test? He looked at the eager faces around him. Obviously, yes. “Sure…uh…Let us pray,” stalled Davies. “Heavenly Father, please be with us today as we…as they…as the Commission on Committees…I mean, the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee attempt to discern your will. Thank you for bringing us all here safely; in your Son’s name. Amen.”

“Amen,” they echoed. C-minus, if you’re lucky. “Let’s start with your family. You’re father’s a priest in this diocese,” said a man to Davies’s left.

Davies waited for a question, but the man seemed to be finished. “Yes, he is. He’s actually on the Standing Committee, but my cousin’s getting married today, so he’s in Georgia right now.”

“Do you see yourself as following in his footsteps?”

“I guess you could put it that way,” Davies said, “but I tend to think that we’re both following in Jesus’ footsteps. At least, I hope so. It’s not the family business or anything. I was deadset against priesthood until I got to college. Then I was able to be my own person, and I realized that my proximity to dad sheltered me from a call of my own.”

He looked around, but no one was clamoring to ask a question: “There was a time at my internship in Texas,” Davies continued, “when I was preaching and I realized halfway through the sermon that I was just channeling my dad. Then I dropped the microphone, stooped to pick it up, and I was me. It was a pretty cool moment.”

The questioner broke in, “I want to caution you, son. Try not to talk about your father too much today. We want to hear about you.” Well, then why did you ask a question about him? “Uh…yessir,” Davies said instead.

The hour came to a close quicker than he thought possible. The welcoming woman pointed him to his next meeting. He was ready to pray this time. Solid B. The hour passed and he moved on to his third meeting. He expected to pray again, but no invitation came. Instead, another priest he had met at camp waited for him to sit down and then said, “So. You’re 21.”

It was a statement with a tinge of accusation. Davies took a quick breath and chambered a verse bullet about not being despised because of your youth. But just as he was about to fire Paul at the ornery priest, something stopped him. Do you realize you’ve been grading your own prayers? Give it up already. What will be will be. “Yes, I am,” said Davies.

“That’s awfully young.” The hour ticked uncomfortably by. Finally, Davies rose, expecting to see a pool of his own sweat on the chair. At least I didn’t talk about dad. He moved on to his last meeting. Once again, they asked him to pray. “Gracious God,” he began, “thank you for these people who have answered the challenge to discern who you are calling to be ordained in your church. Grant them wisdom and courage; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

I’ve never prayed this much out loud in my whole life. Davies smiled. The goatee-ed priest led the questioning, and before Davies knew it, the morning was over. He sat with the three other aspirants as the joint-committee deliberated. The minutes stretched into an hour, and Davies found himself tracing patterns in the Oriental rug.

“Step outside with me a minute.”

Davies looked up and saw the goatee-ed priest gesturing him to the patio door. He stood up, heart thumping like it used to when a fly ball was hit to him in centerfield. They walked out on the porch, and he half expected to see a guillotine among the wicker chairs, but last night’s dream was just a dream. The priest put his hand on Davies’s shoulder. “Before I say anything else,” he said. Oh God, help me. Oh God oh God oh God (…there it is…A-plus…) Oh GOD. “I want you to know that it is our recommendation that you be approved for postulancy.”

Davies barely heard the rest of the speech. The affirmation was just another piece of the plan, and his head was ten years in the future: I’ve finished seminary and gotten married to my girlfriend – I know we’ve only been together six weeks, but she’s The One. I’ve been called to a large church in a suburb of big city. Our son’s starting Tee Ball next spring, and our daughter is putting everything in her mouth. Our black lab likes to catch Frisbees. It’s perfect.

Of course, most of that never happened. But those are different tales.

Everyone’s heart

(Sermon for May 24, 2009 || Easter 7, Year B, RCL || Acts 1:15-17, 21-26)

Their starting lineup is down a man. While football and soccer teams play with eleven on a side, the apostles need an even twelve. No prime numbers for those apostles. Maybe they need twelve to break into four teams of three for Friday night Cranium.* Or, more plausibly, they need twelve to parallel the tribes of the people of Israel and several other biblical allusions. Whatever the reason, they have an open slot. Peter culls down the candidate pool by limiting applicants to those “who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.” Taking this criterion into account, the selection committee proposes two names: Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias.

Then the eleven pray to God for guidance, beginning with “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” Lord, you know everyone’s heart. What a profound statement of faith – five words that speak to the apostles’ trust in God. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. This one, brief sentence guides their decision-making process in three substantial ways. They acknowledge God’s presence in their endeavor. They understand that making choices involves more than purely mental exercise. And they show humility in the face of a life-altering decision.

Now, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we routinely ignore God’s presence because God is always present. We forget that God is in charge of not just the miraculous, but also the mundane. Our failure to recognize God’s presence is understandable. How many of us note the sound of the engine in the car until there’s an ominous sputtering? How many of us note the reliable glow of the bedside lamp until the transformer blows outside? We adapt to routine. We organize our lives into predictable patterns. But God’s movement in our lives is the very framework upon which our patterns hang, so that movement is often difficult to perceive. On the other hand, like the electricity, we’d notice if God weren’t there.

The apostles combat the tendency to ignore God’s foundational presence by invoking God’s knowledge of their hearts as they make a decision. Lord, you know everyone’s heart is shorthand for, “Lord, you are present in all that we do, and your presence sustains the world we live in and the life we live.” With these words, the apostles invite God into their decision-making process. This invitation may seem superfluous if you believe the assertion that God is ever-present. Indeed, God doesn’t need an invitation to be present in our lives. But we often need to invite God in to remind ourselves to be present to God. Our invitation functions, strangely enough, as an RSVP, as a response to God’s presence. The apostles know this. They know that the Lord is already present, but the invitation prepares their hearts to respond to God’s movement.

Lord, you know everyone’s heart, they pray. The apostles know that making a life-altering decision involves more than mental exercise. I’m sure you’re familiar with the old adage: “Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment.” To put this cliché in more expressive terms: “Don’t let your wild, unrefined feelings derail your completely rational higher brain functions.” This advice is, of course, flawed from the start. You may be able to solve an algebra problem using your mind alone, but the rest of human experience is up for grabs.

Every decision we make has both mental and emotional components, and we ignore the emotional at our peril. When the apostles pray, Lord, you know everyone’s heart, they combine the mental verb “know” with the feeling word “heart.” They understand that God made separating heart from head so difficult precisely because our decision-making process should not attempt the separation. God gave us minds to temper our emotions and hearts to provide our minds with the fuel of hope and imagination. God infused our biology with such checks and balances, so we tragically limit ourselves when we shelve our feelings in favor of our thoughts. Only by mingling the two can we make faithful decisions.

The apostles know they are in God’s presence. They employ both their hearts and their minds as they make their choice. And they show humility in the midst of a life-altering decision. This humility is key to the whole decision-making enterprise. Every one of my choices affects more than just me, and those effects ripple into the future in permutations that my brain is unequipped to process. I don’t know how my decisions will affect others, let alone myself. Furthermore, I don’t even know myself well enough to make good decisions. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. If God knows what’s in my heart, then that makes one of us.

Humility comes in when we acknowledge our limited awareness of ourselves and the world around us. If our interior lives are clouded in mystery, how much less can we understand the trajectory of our decisions in the wider world? Inviting God into the decision-making process opens us up to the One who truly knows us. The humble prayer begins, “Lord you know my heart, and you know it much better than I do.” Confessing our shallow understanding of our own inner selves sets us on the path to faithful decisions.

The apostles pray, “Lord you know everyone’s heart.” They invite God into their decision, thus gaining attentiveness of God’s presence in their lives. They do not let their heads dominate, but mingle their hearts and minds in order to use all their faculties to choose. And they humbly acknowledge that they do not alone have the depth of awareness necessary to make a faithful decision.

The apostles choose Matthias to fill out their number. With a full complement of apostles, the Holy Spirit descends on them and they create the Church. Then they begin to spread the Gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. I invite you to imitate the apostles’ prayer when you are faced with a decision. Invite God into your dilemma. Allow your heart and mind to cooperate. And be humble in the midst of the unknown, trusting that God’s knowledge of your hearts far surpasses your own. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Thanks be to God.

Footnotes

* Instead of Cranium, I said, “three tables for Thursday morning Bridge” at the early service.

Competing for spots in my imagination

The day before I returned to VTS for my senior year, I went searching for something in the cupboard under the stairs. The light flickered and hiccupped, casting faint shadows on the cramped, box-strewn floor. The winter coats and old military uniforms brushed me heavily like a gas station carwash. I pulled and pushed boxes of books and elementary school projects out of the way. With a dozen or so boxes disgorged from the closet, I found what I was looking for. Three plastic tubs. Three dusty plastic tubs, each nearly two decades old. I carried them into the living room and lined them up. I slit the packing tape off the first one, opened it, and was met with piles of my childhood.

I began sifting through the legos, pulling out flat black and grey pieces and every human figurine I could lay my hands on. After several hours of collecting, lego pieces littered my living room floor like an abstract mosaic. I fitted the black and grey pieces into a grid and sorted the figurines into groups—knights and pirates, naval personnel and more knights. Another hour and my creation was finished: a lego chess set, complete with knights on horseback and kings in mail and helm.

I spent every rainy day of my childhood and some of the sunny ones building with legos. For many years, I followed the instructions meticulously: each piece went in its place, and when I was finished, I had duplicated the image on the box in three dimensions. At some unidentified point after I had hit double-digits in age, I began straying from the directions. Eventually, the sets I kept prison-like in their own boxes began to mingle. Soon, I had three plastic tubs (they were neither old nor dusty yet) piled high with anachronistic castle legos and futuristic space legos and realistic city legos, all together, all competing for spots in my imagination. I put the directions away and just began to build, to create.

Until the day before returning to seminary, I had not created anything with legos in nearly a decade. But the act of creating infused me with joy. I created videos in high school. I created music in college. And as I began to contemplate God’s movement in my life, I accepted God’s invitation to enter more fully into God’s creation.

Thinking about the call to serve God might prompt one to ask the question: why was I created? But I think this is a faulty question. To reach a better understanding of call, the question should be asked in the present tense: for what am I being created? God’s call in my life is a continuously present reality, always pushing my self-defined limits of possibility. The very act of calling assumes an act of creation, for accepting a call is simply the acknowledgment that God is already at work molding me into a better servant, a better giver, a better lover. I think this is why Paul says that whoever is in Christ is a new creation—new creations that are ever new because of constant and continual creating.

I believe that God has barely begun to create me. This thought comforts me when I realize how much I still have to learn and chastens me when I think I have everything figured out. I have perceived enough of the edge of the expanse that is the life with which God has challenged and blessed me to know that only with God’s help can I respond to God’s call. This call in me is nascent; I am still being formed, still being created. But God has known me since I was in my mother’s womb. Christ is with me until the end of the age. And the Holy Spirit moves my life, always pushing those limits of possibility. I hope that through God’s love and grace, the work God has begun in me is a good one. I hope I can respond to God with a reflection of that love and grace. I hope I continue to catch glimpses of God’s creating movement in my life.

God has invited me to participate in God’s creation. I can comprehend nothing so joyful, nothing so humbling as this. Those three old dusty plastic tubs are back in the cupboard under the stairs. The flickering light is off and the winter coats hang undisturbed. But I am still creating because God is creating me.

(This post originally appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of “The Call” newsletter of the Society for the Increase of the Ministry (SIM), a not-for-profit group that supports Episcopal Seminarians as they move from lay to ordained leadership in the Church. I thank God for this organization, and I thank SIM for generously supporting me, both in prayer and scholarships. Check out SIM’s website.)