Sabbatical Notes, Week 7: Eleven Years of

At the beginning of June eleven years ago, I was sitting in the guest bedroom at my parents house. Graduation from seminary was a few weeks in the past, and ordination to the priesthood was a week in the future. I was existing in an in-between space for those few weeks. The end of my formal academic life was giving way to the start of my professional life. As you can see from the words below, I was a bit at loose ends. On the advice of my seminary thesis reader (and all around awesome person) Brian McLaren, I started Eleven years later, the site is still going strong as a place for my sermons and other musings.

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A Deep Breath

(Sermon for Sunday, January 15, 2012 || Epiphany 2B || 1 Samuel 1:1-20 )

People, including many of you, often ask me how I knew that God was calling me to be a priest. Here’s the story. This week ten years ago, I began the second semester of my freshman year of college. At that time, I was enrolled in a four-semester Humanities class that took a holistic approach to studying Western civilization. The second semester of the class moved from the end of the ancient world through the Middle Ages, so we began around the time of the fall of Rome. The first book we read was The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Now, many of my classmates couldn’t stand Augustine’s introspective, theological memoir, but for some reason, I couldn’t put the book down. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Augustine was teaching me to look deep within myself as he had done all those centuries ago. For me, this book turned out to be much more than an assignment in a four-semester Humanities class.

As I slowly, hesitantly began to look deep within, I began to notice a glowing ember. This ember was the source of the blaze that would become my heart’s fire, but at first the ember was nothing more than the tiniest of flames, the mustard seed of flames. With St. Augustine’s help, I caught sight of that tiny flame. And without realizing what I was doing, I took a deep breath, and when I exhaled, the Holy Spirit rode the wind of my breath into that ember. And the fire began – slowly, hesitantly – this fire that was my call to serve God as a priest in God’s church.

In today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture, the boy Samuel is fast asleep on the floor of the temple of the LORD. And God calls to him, “Samuel! Samuel!” This is Samuel’s own glowing ember, the first phase of his call.

The spark, the glimmer that St. Augustine made me aware of was Phase One of mine. Well, from God’s perspective, what I thought was Phase One was probably closer to Phase 23. But to me, the ember was just the beginning. By the end of my freshman year of college, I knew something was going on in the recesses of my being. I knew a flame had been kindled, but I didn’t know yet on what the flame was shedding light. However, if I had been alone, if I had been the only one to notice and nurture the glowing ember, I am convinced there would never have been a Phase Two.

Enter the Reverend Tom Ward, the chaplain at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Once a month for my entire sophomore year, I met with Tom Ward, and we just talked. We talked about my hopes and dreams, my fears and doubts, my past and future. And then one day – the day was so ordinary that I don’t even have a clear memory of the meeting – I told him about the glowing ember. I told him about reading St. Augustine and looking within and being surprised to find the glowing. And then, fully realizing what he was doing, Tom took a deep breath, and when he exhaled, the Holy Spirit rode the wind of his breath. And the fire spread out from my gut and into every corner of my being.

In today’s lesson, the boy Samuel is fast asleep on the floor of the temple of the LORD. And God calls to him, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel cries out, “Here I am!” And then he runs to Eli, the priest under whom he serves, thinking that Eli had called out to him. “I did not call; lie down again,” says a confused Eli. Samuel does so, but God calls again and then again. Each time, Samuel runs to Eli, thinking that Eli has called out to him. Finally, the third time, Eli realizes that the LORD has been the one calling out to Samuel. So Eli instructs his young charge: “If [God] calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’ ” Eli understands Samuel’s call, and Eli teaches Samuel how to respond to that call. Elis is Samuel’s Tom Ward, the mentor who teaches the student how to respond to God.

During my junior year of college, Tom Ward gathered a group of six people from the community of Sewanee to meet with me about the fire that God had kindled two years before. Every week, we met and shared stories about ourselves: not just me, but each of us sharing. Some stories had to do with God’s movement in our lives, others not, though you come to realize that every story has something to do with God’s movement. This group tested the fire, attempting to discern if the fire was from God. Through listening and sharing and praying, we decided God was in the flame.

In today’s lesson, Eli sends the boy Samuel back to his bed with a response to God. The LORD stands before Samuel and calls his name. Samuel responds, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The group that Tom Ward formed for my discernment taught me how to listen – how to listen to their voices and stories, and within them how to listen for the voice of God speaking God’s story for my life.

During my senior year of college, I went before a scary committee in the diocese of West Virginia. We talked through four one-hour meetings, and at the end of the day, they decided to recommend me for postulancy for Holy Orders. Two years of seminary later, I went before the same committee again, though they were less scary this time. We talked more, and at the end of the day, they recommended me for candidacy for Holy Orders. Six months later, the bishop of West Virginia ordained me to be a deacon. And six months after that, he ordained me to be a priest. Of course, discernment of God’s call is never over, so don’t take away from this that my call story ended that day in June, 2008.

Rather, reflect back on these stories I’ve been telling you these last few minutes. Notice how my story and Samuel’s story overlap. In neither case, can we classify these stories as just mine or just Samuel’s. These stories also belong to Eli and Tom Ward, to the group at Sewanee and the scary committee. And these stories belong to you, for you here at St. Stephen’s have always been a part of God’s call in my life. We just didn’t know that a decade ago.

Notice also that nothing in these stories is all that mysterious. Save for the glowing ember and God’s first call of “Samuel! Samuel!” every phase of these stories involves the simple act of talking with other people. God has built this need for conversation, for communion really, into the very fabric of God’s call in our lives. No call from God exists in solitary confinement. No call from God can ignite into full flame without many people blowing on the embers. We need each other to tease out and discover and nurture God’s call because God’s voice most often comes to us in the voices of other people. Why else would Samuel think Eli was calling to him over and over again?

When you are wondering what God might be calling you to, I offer you this guidance. Find a friend whom you trust more than you trust yourself. This person could be a parent or a spouse or another person whose soul is somehow mingled with yours. Ask this person these two simple questions:

“What do you think the world needs?”


“What do you think I’m good at?”

As you and your friend talk, listen to her words. At the same time, watch for the glowing ember deep within you. Sooner or later the answers to those two questions will intersect, and the ember will glow just a little bit brighter. And without realizing what you are doing, you will both take a deep breath, and when you exhale, the Holy Spirit will ride the wind of your collective breath and ignite a fire in your heart.

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.


At today’s weekly healing service, I forgot something rather important. “Today, we are using Eucharist Prayer B found on page 367,” I said, and then a moment later, “The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you” came the reply from seven chilly parishioners (unlike the abiding presence of God, the heat in our building is both scarce and unreliable). We then exchanged the rest of the sursum corda* and I prayed the proper preface for Epiphany. Together, we said the Sanctus, after which I began the rest of the Eucharistic prayer.

“We give thanks to you, O God…” O God, I thought. I looked down. I looked up. O God. I looked down again. My distorted reflection peered up at me out of an empty chalice. I stopped speaking, pulled my hands out of the orans position, and turned around. “It seems that I forgot to put the wine in the chalice. Um…one moment please.”

I finished setting the table, smiling in a mortified kind of way. Then we continued the Eucharistic prayer, and the rest of the service went as expected. As I was walking back to my office, I thought to myself: I can’t believe I forgot to fill the chalice. That wasn’t very graceful of me.

Then I remembered some of the words I heard at my friend’s ordination, which I attended this weekend in Denver. The bishop looked at my friend standing before him and said, “In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace…”

Nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace. What a phrase. At my own ordination, these words passed right through my sternum and took up residency in the neighborhood of my left ventricle. They set me on fire and I never thought I’d stop burning. But in the last seven months, I somehow forgot the message of these words. I don’t know — maybe their house in my heart went into foreclosure. Maybe I wasn’t inhaling enough Holy Spirit with each breath to keep the fire going. I never forgot that it was my job to nourish. But I did forget whose meal was providing that nourishment.

You see, as a priest (heck, as a person) it is my job to say, “I have nothing of my own to offer. I have only what you, Lord, have given me.” Too often, I get caught up in succeeding at things that I forget that my success is not really mine at all. Too often, I try to nourish Christ’s people from the paucity of my grace, rather than from the riches of Christ’s. But doing that is like trying to water your lawn with the hose turned off.

When I forgot to put wine in the chalice, I remembered just how graceless I am. There I was with hands outstretched and prayer on autopilot, about to ask God to bless an empty cup. After filling the chalice with wine and a few drops of water, I realized that it was not the only empty cup in the room. I needed to be filled, too. I needed the riches of Christ’s grace to nourish me again because I — through inattentiveness and pride — had let his sustenance leach from my body.

This guy invented the salchow. His name is Ulrich Salchow. What a coincidence!?!
This guy invented the salchow. His name is Ulrich Salchow. What a coincidence!?!

We use the word “graceful” when we describe a dancer pirouetting or a figure skater performing a triple salchow. The word also applies to those people who suck every ounce of nutrition out of Christ’s nourishment and walk about with shimmering cascades of grace spilling over the tops of their heads. I know a few such people. You can tell them apart because they leave little puddles of grace behind them when they leave.

Lord, help me to remember that it is your grace with which you call me to nourish others. I can’t nourish them if I don’t allow you to nourish me. So please, fill this empty cup with the shimmering riches of Christ’s grace.


* Here’s a list of the technical words I used in this post:

Sursum corda: The three calls and responses at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, in which the congregation gives the priest the okay to go ahead and celebrate the Eucharist. The responsory nature of this prayer makes explicit that the Eucharist is a corporate event.

Epiphany: The twelfth day after Christmas, on which we celebrate the coming of the wise men to see Jesus. The coming of light into darkness and the call of the disciples are stressed during the season of Epiphany, which extends from January 6 to the day before Ash Wednesday.

Sanctus: “Sanctus” means holy and is the name for the prayer which begins “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.” In Hebrew, there’s no way to make a word superlative (good, better, best); so, a three time repetition serves the same purpose.

Chalice: The cup we use at church. Remember that scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? The room with the old knight is full of chalices. (“He chose…poorly”)

Orans position: “Orans” comes from the Latin word for “prayer” and is used when the priest is saying a prayer on behalf of the congregation. Think of a referee unethusiastically signaling touchdown and you’ve got it.

Ordination: The thing that happens to make someone who’s not a priest into a priest. The word comes from Latin and means something to the effect of “to put into order”; thus, ordination is when someone is set apart from others. There are four “orders” in the church: lay, deacon, priest, bishop — the latter three are “ordained” positions.