Thursday, January 17, 2019

21 Years a Priest

Feeling nostalgic today -- this 21st anniversary of my ordination -- I spied this photo which sits on a table in my office. It's of me receiving a blessing from the inimitable Verna Dozier (in Philadelphia in 1997) and of me giving my first blessing-as-a-priest to Bishop Fred Borsch (in Los Angeles in 1998.)

It is in my office because it has always been an icon for me of a kind of apostolic succession that has nothing to do with patriarchy or institutional church hierarchy and everything to do with what Dr. Dozier taught, fought for and passed down to a next generation.

An African American, a woman and a lay person, her voice was a voice the church hadn’t expected to hear or – I suspect -- even wanted to listen to. And yet like the Gentile woman in Tyre insisting that Jesus hear her plea and heal her daughter, Verna stood her ground and insisted that church hear her plea and heal itself of the clericalism and institutionalism distorting its vision -- hampering its mission – keeping it from becoming all that God intended it to be.

In her 1991 book, The Dream of God, she wrote “God has paid us the high compliment of calling us to be coworkers with our Creator, a compliment so awesome that we have fled from it and taken refuge in the church. The urgent task for us is to reclaim our identity as the people of God and live into our high calling as the baptized community…that the dream of God for a new creation may be realized."

I first encountered Verna when a copy of The Dream of God leapt off the shelf of the old Diocesan Center bookstore and into my hands. As I was preparing for ordination her words were my constant companions as The Dream of God became part of my seminary-survival-kit – reminding me over and over and over again not to confuse God with the church – challenging me to balance academics and action. I only heard her preach once – in 1997 in Cincinnati at a national justice conference – and what I remember most were these words, “Don’t tell me what you believe – tell me what difference it makes that you believe.” Her foundational thesis – that the church has failed in its high calling to be the Body of Christ in the world because is has too often settled for worshiping Jesus instead of following Jesus -- became a core value of my own priesthood -- and I am deeply grateful to be part of this All Saints Church community that not only shares but lives out those values.

Finally, her words about faith and fear are ones I have turned to again and again – especially whenever it’s time to once more step out into new beginnings, new challenges, new opportunities.

“Doubt” said Verna, “is not the opposite of faith: fear is. Fear will not risk that even if I am wrong, I will trust that if I move today by the light that is given me, knowing it is only finite and partial, I will know more and different things tomorrow than I know today, and I can be open to the new possibility I cannot even imagine today."

Words of hope and challenge we need today more than ever. And now -- back to my regularly scheduled to-do list.

[photo credit: Jamesetta Hammons]

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