Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Desert Crossing

From the beginning, Richard and I hoped that To Speak Now of God would be more than merely a platform for two voices.  We envisioned the possibility of inviting kindred spirits to share the space, and it is now my pleasure to introduce you to Lisa Palson Priest.

For 17 years we collaborated to produce The Seasons, a quarterly devotional booklet featuring a daily lectionary together with essays, poetry, prayers and short fiction.  We supplied much of the content, but had several loyal contributors whose work we included. During that time Lisa completed her undergraduate work at Wellesley College. She has tutored non-traditional students in writing for a number of years, and feels blessed to help others find their true voices. When not working or writing, she enjoys knitting, needlepoint, and crewelwork. She lives in the country with her husband, her little black dog, and three hives of bees.  They have three grown children.
Howard MacMullen

I was so very certain of my call. And that certainty was the only thing that could induce me to complete my college education.  I realized that, despite my years as deacon, despite my guest preaching, and the liturgical dramas and the many essays I had written, ordination was impossible without higher education. So – for God’s sake – I returned to school at 48 to complete my undergraduate degree.  I majored in Religion, graduated with honors, applied to seminary, was accepted. I was on my way.

I can still clearly remember the exact moment that I became fully aware of my calling. I had received a very different call – to jury duty – and went to spend the day in a courthouse basement waiting to be seated for a trial. A young woman sat down beside me, and we both laughed about the dread we felt when we received the notice in the mail. But her agitation, I sensed, went far beyond jury duty jitters. Soon she was telling me the cause: her husband had suddenly left her, with two small children. She was bewildered, terrified, humiliated, overwhelmed. I listened sympathetically as the brokenness and pain poured out of her. When at last we were dismissed at noon, everyone sighed with enormous relief.  We burst out of the building into a day filled with sunlight and blue skies. She and I parted, and I wished her well. I never saw her again, never knew her name. But as I slid into the front seat of my car and put the key in the ignition, I stopped and looked up at the extravagant fair weather cloud sailing overhead. This morning, I was doing ministry, I thought. It felt so good to be able to help someone merely by listening. Then, unexpectedly, “You could be a minister. You should be.”

It was a voice not my own, from deep within me, authoritative and gentle at the same time. I listened.

Perhaps God touched both the woman and me that day. She needed to speak with someone who loves to listen to people’s stories and can be still, with a touch of intuition. I needed a catalyst – a messenger to deliver my call. Although I had been writing for years, my work felt pointless. I had been interested in religion since I was very small. But I had never managed to combine the two. From that day on, I could not imagine a life better than one in which I could partner with God, a conduit for grace and healing. I would become a parish minister! It did not matter that I was not particularly good at leading groups. I loved to be the Reader during worship at our local United Church of Christ. I could write well; I could learn to write sermons! I had already been called to serve as a Deacon for our church, one of several men and women who assisted the pastor at worship, considered church policy, and served the needs of the congregation. 

The more I thought about it, the more I believed I would be God’s gift to whatever congregation would be fortunate enough to call me, for I had clearly been given special talents that would permit me to be God’s representative. I liked to picture myself standing in the pulpit, perhaps glowing a little, as the Word of God poured through me from above and out to the congregation in the pews below.  I had been told that my voice was soothing, that my writing was inspiring. Unfortunately, I took it all to heart.

I should have noticed that something was amiss when I balked at the number of courses needed to complete a Master of Divinity degree. There was a niggling worry when I realized I was a reluctant Bible reader – except when I was reading it aloud to a congregation, the center of everyone’s attention. I had the grace to feel regretful and envious of others who could quote Bible verses freely and appropriately. Still, I had received a call, my feet were set firmly upon the path, and nothing would derail me from my purpose.

Falls can take many forms, but the very nature of a fall is that it is sudden and completely unexpected. It is terrifying and usually painful. My own fall was exactly that, a complicated series of events that sent me reeling over a spiritual cliff soon after I entered seminary, and I came to in a desert place.

That was nine years ago.

Today I am neither an ordained pastor, nor did I continue in seminary. It has been a long time since I have written easily about God.

God leads us to the desert whenever there is something we must learn. Often we go kicking and screaming and find the way back barred at first by an angel with a sword of flames. At other times, we wander from the appointed path, distracted by other things, and find ourselves on what at first appears to be barren and rocky ground. A deserted place. We feel completely alone. How did this happen? How will we survive?

I never lost my essential faith, but I certainly lost my way. Like the wandering Israelites, I was able to find bits of manna here and there: kind words and spiritual guidance from family and friends, and from the writings of Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, N. T. Wright.  I was sustained on the journey, but definitely lost. Where was the pillar of fire to lead me home?

One day I received a letter from one of my oldest friends. She said she had felt moved to write her conversion story, her Damascus moment, and send it along. It did not matter what I did with it: she just knew she needed to send it to me.  The simple, honest account glowed before me like candlelight in darkness. I have been following that candle ever since.

Simple. Unaffected. Honest. As all true ministry should be.

Was I misled in discerning a call to ministry? I don’t believe so. But I needed to learn that ministry takes many forms. And even more important: pridefulness simply has no place in the unfolding of God’s work in this world.

There are many lessons to be learned in the desert: lessons concerning friendship, discernment, discipline, prayer.  Lessons in humility. Lessons about the power of community, and the value of solitude.

I am still discerning the call I know I heard, and trying to determine where and how I stumbled from the path. But it is immensely comforting to know that the path is there for the finding, well marked if I look carefully for the signs. I have learned that even at the most deserted spots, I never was alone. I learned first-hand the mercy of “the grace that passes all understanding”, the forgiveness that ultimately leads us home.

Lisa Palson Priest
© August, 2012

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