Another Kind of Vigil

“When your heart is breaking for someone who is broken, but your words can’t reach them and your love can’t save them, ask the angels to go where you cannot; to whisper into their heart what their ears cannot hear; we love you, we’re here, you’re not alone.”

When Vickie and I returned to Barrington on Wednesday, April 26, we went immediately to be with our friend and their families who were sitting vigil for their husband/father.  They had begun the climb for Machu Picchu in Peru when her husband suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.  After surgery and a time of hopeful recovery in Lima, he eventually was flown back to Rush-Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago where his family was told that he had no chance of recovery.  He was moved to hospice care where he has been slowing dying for over a week as I write this on Wednesday, May 3.  They are dear friends.  We’ve been visiting regularly.

Few experiences in life strip us down to the essentials more than sitting vigil with someone who is dying.  Existence becomes razor focused.  All that seemed to matter a few days ago becomes window dressing on the essentials of human existence:  breath, love, family, friends, time, suffering and more.  Work pressure disappears into the rhythm of keeping watch day and night.  Matters of existential urgency are consumed by the spirit of eternity.   Those in vigil become acutely aware of life, hoping deep in their souls that the loved one will somehow continue indefinitely while facing into the reality of death and the knowledge that they/we can’t have it both ways.

Behavior changes unfold.  Showers aren’t needed everyday.  Clothes become “lived in.” Chairs become beds and two hours of sleep a luxury.  Surrounded by a community of family and friends, food appears randomly and abundantly.  There is a story of one friend who brought six vanilla lattes because she didn’t know what else to do.

No pattern governs life except the reality and comfort of the dying.  We might rarely hold the hand, look a loved one in the face, and sit still when all is well, but in vigil these moments are gifts as the human soul seeks to record all that is unfolding in order to remember forever; seeks to forge a connection that will sustain the surviving loved one, because, as Jesus said before his own death, “where I’m going you cannot come.”  And each moment encapsulates the dilemma between suffering and freedom.  Life has an intrinsic and focused purpose.  Life has meaning.  Life has value.  Everyone counts in a vigil.  Awareness becomes a sensitivity to each silent nuance of the environment.  Time seems to slow down and so do those of us who surrender to the vigil.  For some, there is prayer of words.  For some, there is prayer of actions.  For some there is no conscious prayer.  For some God is a comfort.  For others God is a question mark.  For some God is irrelevant.  But I wonder: God is love and where true love is found, there is God.  Hover above a vigil of loved ones where love is present and God is there.  God doesn’t need recognition.  God simply shows up in a myriad of undisclosed ways including a peaceful death.  But then, that’s my belief and comfort.

The Rev. Al Johnson is Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation for the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. 

Being A Priest


Al Johnson and wife Vickie at his ordination in 1979

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

“Jesus and the Local Church” ECW’s Annual Retreat at Chautauqua

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 10.41.25 AMThe Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania’s Episcopal Church Women will be hosting their annual retreat at Chautauqua Institution on September 12th from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  The retreat will be led by The Reverand Canon Al Johnson (Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation with the Diocese).  Canon Johnson will speak about “Jesus and the Local Church.”

Stories are at the heart of all we do each and every day and in all our churches each and every Sunday.  During this retreat participants will learn the stories of each other and of Jesus.  They will explore the unique calling of the local parish and then proceed to tell the story of each local parish.  They will explore trends related to the local church in our nation and then look at similar concerns in our local communities. They will discuss what recent statistics about religious institutional life say about our local communities, as well as the struggles and triumphs of the local church.  Finally participants will explore a local church that is living and free by discussing  generativity, fear, resurrection, and abundance.

All are welcome!  Registration is $20 for Saturday and is due by August 28th. Friday, overnight accommodations are available at the Episcopal cottage on a first come first serve basis (Friday and Saturday registration is $30).  Contact Donna Wheeler for information and to register 814-825-5708.