Monday, January 25, 2016

To Listen, Hear, and Answer Readily the Call

COLLECT for Epiphany 3
Give us grace, O Lord, to listen, hear and answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation. 

You may be seated.

As in the early wee hours of Friday morning I sit at my bayside window contemplating my sermon time, there are flashes of lightning beyond Shell Island out in the Gulf of Mexico south of me. Violent flashes to the west toward Destin and Fort Walton. On my computer laptop I open the weather radar map to see a long red weather system stretching from south out in the Gulf and north up into Kentucky and West Virginia: it is part of the storm that will dump a blizzard in the Washington DC area before the weekend is very old. 

From my window, in the shoreline lights of Oaks by the Bay Park next door, I see that the Bay is quite rough, waves rushing angrily ashore onto the beach at my feet seven stories below. And there are whitecaps across the surface of St. Andrews Bay that all my life I’ve loved so dearly.   

Give us grace, O Lord, to listen, hear and answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ.

At this ancient aging of life, Linda and I are blessedly able to live in a place that I call 7th Heaven, where I wonder as I look at the Propers for Sunday, including the Collect for the Day, what the Lord God who confronted Adam in the Garden and Abraham at age 75 — what the Holy One may yet have in mind for me. 

On my computer screen, I shrink the weather radar map to see that the only other heavy weather on the North American continent is a Pacific system stretching from British Columbia down across Seattle, and Oregon, into California below San Francisco and south of Los Angeles. Although born and raised here in Panama City right on the Bay, there are times when I long for California, where we lived for two years in the middle of our Navy life nearly fifty years ago.

Give us grace, O Lord, to listen, hear and answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ

God has called me from time to time at various ages and moments and places in my life, calling that somehow never seems to end. I’m here this morning listening again, as on the weather radar map the red line draws closer, now between me and Laguna Beach, and the lightning is brighter, no longer just in the clouds but bright streaks from sky to earth or sea, as the thunder that was rolling, now explodes loud and close.

What, Lord? Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth. Abraham’s response: Hinneni — Here I am, Lord. What Abraham said, and Samuel.

I waited fifteen years before daring to tell my story the first time, because self-consciously it makes me feel and wonder if I’m insane, or look and sound insane, but eventually I told my church in Apalachicola, and at St. Thomas, Laguna Beach, and I’ve hesitantly told it here a couple of times over the almost eighteen years I’ve been retired from parish ministry and serving and preaching off and on here at Holy Nativity. I’m on my third stint as Priest Associate here, this is the place of my heart.

My call story always makes me uneasy, and I wonder, like Ebenezer Scrooge confronted by the ghost of Jacob Marley, whether it was an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.

But no, I was awake and deeply distressed that night. Monday evening, February 13, 1984. It would have been my grandfather Weller’s hundred-twelfth birthday — his father was an Episcopal priest, and two of his brothers, and their grandfather before them. And I was soon to be ordained priest. The bishop had assigned me to our home parish for my nine months as deacon-in-training, and that assignment was to continue indefinitely as I took up the ministry of associate rector as a priest. 

As rain splashes on my window and lightning flashes bright and close with instant claps of thunder, I glance at the weather radar and see that the storm’s red line is crossing the bay and coming toward me.

Now on top of my building, flashing, crashing thunder and lightning. I don’t realize that a tornado warning has just been flashed across the area.

It’s two-forty-nine a.m. and suddenly all the tall building lights across the bay are gone, and all the red and green channel markers disappear except R6 flashing red two-and-a-half seconds just yards off my window.

I am in bed at our home on the Conodoguinet Creek in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In agony. Anguish. High mental stress, cannot sleep, worrying about pressure I cannot explain or understand, extreme tension has developed between me and Father Xxxx, once a dear friend, and who some years ago actually was the voice of God calling me out of my comfortable life into seminary and ordained ministry once and for all. Our warm relationship has chilled. We cannot stand each other. 

Rain is slamming against my window now as I sit here, type, think, remember.

I’d read a book recently, Nine O’clock in the Morning, by Father Dennis Bennett, about the charismatic movement in the Episcopal Church, and the Reverend Terry Fullam, early active in the movement, who had become to me a hero of sorts. I am 48 years old. In the book Terry describes his anguish during a personal religious retreat at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai in the Holy Land, as he struggles with ministry decisions and the course of his life. (I’ve told you this story before) — At a dark hour and pitch black night, he is in his cell in the monastery, when, as Terry describes it, his mind is suddenly emptied of all thought, all conscious awareness; and then completely filled by a voice, speaking to him at some length, that clarifies for him his future, of God’s will and God’s call. This is on my mind as I struggle with tension, indecision and unhappiness in my own life — should I —

  • Stay on at Mount Calvary Parish in the hell it has become for me? I cannot do that.
  • Should I go to the bishop with the letter I’ve already written telling him I’ve decided against my upcoming ordination to the priesthood, and am returning to lay status and my business, which I am in fact still operating, and my university courses, which I am still teaching?  The letter is already signed. I’ve shown it to my rector and will take it to the bishop in the morning.
  • Should I start looking around for another parish in the diocese, a call to one of the several vacant pulpits?

Lying in bed unhappier than I’ve ever been, I speak aloud, prayerfully in a whisper, because Linda is asleep next to me. “Lord, you spoke to Terry Fullam: why can’t you speak to me?”

Whether it was the stress and anger and sadness, or my disturbed mind, or my imagination, my mind instantly is drained, emptied of all consciousness, all awareness, all thought, and as instantly filled with a voice: “I AM speaking to you, Tom Weller.” Just as suddenly, the voice is gone and I am back to where I was, in control of all my senses.

My life clarifies in that moment. As a 19-year-old university sophomore I’d abandoned the call to ordained ministry that had been clear to me since age ten. Changed my college major, and after graduation entered the U. S. Navy. 

At twelve years Naval service, in a warship crossing the Pacific on its way to Vietnam, I decided to resign as soon as eligible for retirement; and eight years later I’d done that - retired - but not to go to seminary, with no intention of seminary and ordination even though people in our Pennsylvania parish kept hounding, harassing me to do that. “Tom, you have a vocation to ministry, have you ever considered going to seminary?” And me, “Yes, I have considered it, and I decided long ago not to do that.” Even members of my family, my mother. But I said, “No, mama, I’m not doing that.” I worked a year with a Washington, DC consulting firm, then started a business, a traveling international venture of American, Canadian and Australian defense industries. And teaching two graduate courses in Major Weapons System Acquisition for the political science division at the University of West Florida. 

But eventually, obviously! I’d relented [I’ve told the story here several times, so not repeating it again this morning], relented and gone to seminary and ordination. First, a transitional deacon. And now I was struggling with unbearable tension and unhappiness. Our intent to stay comfortably retired and working ensconced as a part-time priest at our home parish in Harrisburg has turned into a nightmare. Why this tension and anguish?

Why, Lord? You spoke to Terry Fullam. Why can’t you speak to me?

I AM speaking to you, Tom Weller.

I stayed for ordination as priest. The following month I started my search process that over the next few weeks resulted in a call to be rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, a lovely old parish in Pennsylvania Deutsch Country a few miles east of Harrisburg and friends; and also a two hour drive to Washington, DC, where I could easily continue my relationships and my retired Navy life and business career if I failed parish ministry. We prepared to accept the call and move to Mount Joy.

And then of course another call came: to Trinity, Apalachicola, back home to northwest Florida, sixty-five miles from Panama City where I’d always meant to return. So Apalachicola, where we lived and served happily the next fourteen years. I found my happiness only in listening, hearing and answering God’s call.

I AM speaking to you, Tom Weller.

The storm has passed through now, still raining lightly, thunder and lightning off to the east and away. St. Andrews Bay is clear, all harbor lights visible, also the string of lights at Bay Point and tall condo buildings on Thomas Drive along the Gulf shore.

What now, Lord? 

Give us grace, O Lord, to listen, hear and answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ.

20160124, Sunday Epiphany 3C sermon/homily by the Rev. Tom Weller, HNEC, Panama City, FL. Texts: collect and gospel Luke 4:14-21. Printed not pridefully but hesitantly with great self-consciousness, and ONLY because of a standing commitment to a friend whom I will never let down! TW+

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