Wednesday, May 27, 2015

When the Whole Priest Thing Took

There are certain times when one can point to something and say "After this (fill in the blank) I was different."  Often it is a ceremony, or something dramatic.  Weddings, funerals, ordinations, swearing-ins, and that is the official beginning.  But there is an event after the official where the official becomes more real, it "takes," or it all finally clicks.

In my favorite novel, Les Miserables, there was a turning point for Jean Valjean.  Most point to the Bishop, when he stretches the truth to the police about "giving" the silver to Jean Valjean.  With his immortal words, he changed a life officially.
The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:--
"Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man." 
Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity:-- 
"Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God."
It may seem that this is where it is real.  In a way it was.  It was real for the Bishop, but it was not until the next day when it became real for Jean Valjean.  After having walked all night, in his exhaustion he sat down under a tree.  A little boy flipping a coin missed it, and the coin rolled up to Valjean.  He put his big foot down to cover it.  In an act of utter meanness, he kept it covered despite the boy's pleadings, cries, and shoves.  Impassive and cruel, he kept the coin and the boy left in tears.  It was then when the realization of his actions took hold.  He saw clearly what he had done, to the boy, and in fact, with his whole life.  And the haunting words of the Bishop came flooding back, and Valjean's hardened heart cracked.  This was the moment when it "took."  This is the moment when the Bishop's purchase of his soul became real.

I still remember how serious I took the day of my ordination.  I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, to quote Dr. Seuss.  But, I remember the day it became more real and crystal clear in my mind.  I was visiting with a parishioner and their spouse.  I had been many times, and a bad diagnosis had recently turned to a terminal diagnosis.  It was a hard conversation.  The parishioner, though, was matter-of-fact and straightforward with the details, holding nothing back.  And then we broke out my kit and celebrated the Eucharist, and that is when I saw things in a new light.  As we said the now familiar words my friend was not sad, but smiling.  My friend was not just smiling, but weeping.   Tears and joy, sorrow and love, all mingled together in the mystical communion of God and man, of death and life, of the now and the eternal.  And it clicked.  My role as a priest became startlingly clear.

At my first ordination in the Baptist tradition, one of my seminary professors, Dr. Sam Balentine, spoke to the Hebrew ordination of the priest in Leviticus 8.  It is the exact opposite of the re-introduction of the healed leper back into community.  Just as the leper is brought from those numbered amongst the dead back into the living, the priest is shoved into the doorway of the Tabernacle representing the movement from the community of the living to the doorway of the eternal.  Firmly standing with one foot in both realms, the priest takes his place.  That all came flooding back that day.

In this moment of clarity I saw my role as a priest and myself as a follower of Christ differently.  More fully did I see myself as an agent of Grace.  I stand between realms, and offer the love and grace that is more real than any worry or trouble or drama we create on this side of heaven.  I take those feelings and that understanding with me now when I am behind the altar and the pulpit.  I try to do the same when I say to people "God bless you!" at our Food Pantry.  I try to remember it when I am correcting my children, or disagreeing with my wife.  In all I do and in all I say, my prayer is that this new reality come forth, and I can point to that day in that living room when I saw things fresh and new.  And real, ultimately real.  Thanks be to God.

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Blessings, Rock