It’s a crisis that is compounded because it seems to run counter to my vocation as a priest.
It’s a crisis of speech. It’s a crisis of voice.
In the face of the bigness of the challenges that face us as a human race, a country, a city, a community, and a church (locally and globally), I wonder what I have to say. What qualifies me to speak anything, even if I had something to say?
As I matriculated through seminary (both times – the Interdenominational Theological Center and the School of Theology at the University of the South), I was constantly fixated on two of the major prophets of the Hebrew Bible, namely Isaiah and Ezekiel. Isaiah represented the paragon of faith. After all, he had seen the Lord “high and lifted up” with the train of God’s robe filling the temple. And when the Divine Council asked who would go and speak the word of God to God’s people, Isaiah, so sure of himself, said “Here am I, send me.”
And then there is Ezekiel, who was commanded by God to “eat this scroll, and go, to speak to the house of Israel.” When I get past how much this scene mimics the scene in “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” where Ike Turner tells Tina “eat the cake, Anna Mae,” I actually start to become envious of Ezekiel. At least he knew clearly what he was called to speak. It tasted like honey to him.
I’m sure I’ve oversimplified the journeys of these two giants among prophets. I know enough of their story to know that each of them (and the schools of disciples who carried on their messages after they died) would face their own challenges in articulating the Reign of God in the world over and against that of empire. And yet they seem like heroes. Their words so poetic, clear, and penetrating.
It seems to me that it is hard to get a word in edgewise in our current milieu. Voices shouting from the myriad factions of the human family are all vying for space in the very limited bandwidth of human interaction. It’s loud and confusing. Maybe this has always been true. Maybe humanity has always been fractured like a giant, dysfunctional stained-glass window, with each piece trying desperately to outshine the other to the point where we miss the image they each add up to make.
In the midst of the noise, it is often hard to figure out what God might be trying to tell us. Let me use “I” language. In the midst of the noise, it is often hard to figure out what God might be trying to tell me, or even what I am supposed to be trying to tell others.
The self-assured among us will say “preach the Gospel.” But I often wonder what the means. Not that I doubt resurrection or incarnation or the fiery coming of the Holy Spirit. But what does all that mean in a world where each camp of Christianity seems to claim a monopoly on God. Conservatives claim one thing, progressives another. Catholics speak their truth, while Protestants claim another. Liturgical traditions raise their order and forms, charismatics raise their hands. I suppose if one considers themselves squarely in one came or another, they know what to say, or at least they can tow the company line.
But what if one finds themselves camp-less? What if one considers themselves conservative and progressive, catholic and protestant, liturgical and charismatic, all of that and none of that and more than that? What then? What is the Gospel then?
Now you catch a glimpse into my existential crisis – my “all of that and none of that and more than that” identity that makes it hard to say much of anything coherent, especially to people who might be looking for clear answers, clear doctrine, clear choices, and a clear voice.
And yet, somehow God decided to make me a priest of the Church. That thought alone blows my already-scattered mind. It sure wasn’t because I was certain. It certainly wasn’t because I was sure. Maybe it’s simply because I was open. Maybe it’s simply because I chose to say yes. Maybe it’s because God, in typical God-fashion, saw more in me than I often see in myself.
Somewhere I had fallen in love with Jesus. I was introduced to him through the prayers and witness of my grandmother. That image of Christ was nurtured through the spirited preaching of Bishop Hilliard and patient teaching of Bishop McCullough. There were countless other saints along the way who tended the tenderness of Christ within me, taught me the Bible, schooled me in prayer and song (and prayer through song), steadied my shaky voice, and sent me out into the world in witness to Christ. Even though that journey may have taken me far from them (geographically, theologically, and ideologically), they are still essential parts of my journey.
That spiritual journey has taken me to the halls of academia and to the table of the Eucharist, from the Piedmont to the Plains.
Maybe that’s why I experience my own voice as shapeless – because every single time I feel assured that I’ve found God, I find that I have so much further to go. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel truly at home in conservative or liberal Christianity, in catholic or protestant expressions of faith, in liturgical or charismatic worship, because deep down I believe I am not supposed to be. If each of us is searching for moments of refreshment and welcome on our continuous trek towards liberation and freedom, then each community I enter, each worship service I preside over, each prayer I pray is a moment of refuge and refreshment, a moment of awareness of God’s presence as I continue that journey towards wholeness and holiness.
And maybe my most clear speech is that of invitation.
“Enter this mystery with me.”
“Come along on this journey with me.”
My best self is able to articulate with muddled clarity an experience of captivating love and scandalous welcome, of dazzling light in the midst of deafening darkness, and to invite other wayfaring strangers as we stumble together through the darkness towards that “light [that] shines in the darkness” and, try as it might, that darkness will not overwhelm it.
Maybe that’s my scroll to eat. It doesn’t taste like honey. More like honeysuckle and mountain air, dust and sweat, long days and cold nights.
It tastes like journey, like roadside McDonald’s and “Big Gulps” of Coca-Cola from the Exxon.
I’d like to say that we’d make the way by walking, but the truth is we enter this journey along a well-traveled path. Women and men more holy that we, more aware than we, have stumbled along it. The trail bears their mark, their footprints, their blood and their tears. They’ve given us creeds and prayers, hymns and words of caution. Thank God for their words. I often find that I’d have no words at all if they hadn’t graciously invited me to use theirs.
They too invite us to enter.
And maybe that’s all God asks for, at least from me, at least right now.