When I was lying on the cool tile floor of the Cathedral of St. James in Chicago on December 8, 1979 while the Litany for Ordinations was being beautifully chanted by a tenor voice resonating off the cathedral walls, my grasp of priesthood appeared significant. Every year since Jesus has taught me that I had narrow vision. Henri Nouwen spoke at our commencement and told us that the worst had already happened in Jesus Christ. It was the worst of my life that had drawn me to priesthood in hopes that God might redeem life and teach what love was all about; love of God, love of others and love of self. In the process my prayer was that the experiences of my life to date in 1979 might be put to use in some way that allowed me to take them off the junk pile of shame and add them to the story of life and break me in the ways that only God knew I needed to be broken. That isn’t a criterion for all priests or for all people but it was a criterion for me. But it could be a necessity for finding and being found by God. When one thinks of an empty soul one need only look in my direction. Ironically while the only way to fill such emptiness is by God, and one would think that becoming a priest would assure that outcome; not so; I still had to hike my way through the landmines of my own denial to begin to see God’s redemption and the hope of love.
Seventeen years later while looking down on a circular stone altar at Tel Megiddo in Israel the musings of a call begun in early teens crystallized into the restorative experience of discovering that I was born to be a priest; that there has been, is, and always will be priests who’s calling is to be with people in the in-between places of human existence; in a liminal space between the divine and the human; that priests have been a part of cultures since before our heritage as Jews and Christians; and there always will be priests because our calling not only grows from the heart of God and our own hearts, but grows from the hearts of people who seek something beyond themselves that we Christians call God. And my job as a priest is to enter into that space with people. The gift of priesthood has no greater value in God’s economy than any other such gift as nurse, teacher, garbage collector, flight attendant, banker, hedge-fund investor, bishop, deacon or any other vocation one can imagine. As St. Paul writes, “the left hand cannot tell the right food; ‘I don’t need you.’” We are all in this soup together.
Like many, I thought ordination was a finish line only to discover that the race of a lifetime was about to unfold filled with rough places, high mountains, crooked roads, and deep valleys. Wouldn’t ordination protect me from the pains of life? On the contrary, ordination threw me into those pains in the lives of others and myself.
And yes, it seems like yesterday that I was lying on that floor full of confidence, hope, and altruism. None of that is different today except I’m hoping Jesus will take me kneeling or sitting because getting up off the cold floor can be a challenge, and perhaps more humility today than confidence unless by confidence one mean’s trust in God.
The Rev. Al Johnson, Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation