By the Rev. Eric Long
It is difficult to fit more things into an overly filled life. This is particularly so when the newly heaped on things are ones we could easily have avoided adding at all. They have been loaded on by choice.
I must own such feelings as I write this article during a brief break from my studies at The University of the South (Sewanee), where I am in the thick of my last year of classes in pursuit of a Doctor of Ministry degree. Even though my body is here, my mind and energy are very much in Roanoke, with all that makes up “real life” there. And with a mind full of “there”, it is easy to question why I am here.
Almost certainly you don’t know this, but there wouldn’t be a there for me, without here. That is because it was here at Sewanee two years ago that Carolyn H’Doubler called me by phone and asked me, on behalf of the Vestry and all of St. John’s, to come there to be your Rector. And it was here that I said yes and took on the adventure of my new life there.
Yet here I am again, even two years later, because once you have put four years into something, it seems a shame not to make a push to finish it. Somehow, I am also here as a testimony, of sorts, to why I took on this challenge in the first place four years ago: I was hungry to hear something new from God. That appetite compelled me to action, even to school work no one was forcing me to do. You see, in the day-to-dayness of life — even a priest’s life, even a church’s life — routines of busyness make it hard to have ears that listen, maybe most especially to God. And so I came. And so I come again. And because I came, I went. To Roanoke. To you. Without a here, there wouldn’t be a there.
One of the classes I’m taking is called The Art of Preaching. It involves using literature to provide fresh language for preaching. We are doing unbelievable amounts of reading and then writing sermons – which might well never be used – based on stories and poems and novels. One short story by Peggy Payne is about the pastor of a church who audibly hears God speak to him and is scared to death about telling his congregation, as they will think he is crazy. It is called “The Pure in Heart,” and I suppose that title is about the struggle the pastor has about having a heart that is pure enough to speak of the God who speaks, as opposed to meeting the low expectations of his beloved parishioners who, very much like all of us too often, do not much expect a loquacious God. The pastor finally gives in, knowing he must bear witness to what he has heard, and in response, the church board very narrowly decides not to ask him to leave, although they think it would be a very good idea that he talk to a psychiatrist.
You may be relieved to discover at this point that I have no confession to make, other than to say that I came here originally to hear precisely that voice, and the hearing of it is what brought me to you. I heard, through a phone call from Carolyn on your behalf, a call that was made because she thought you all heard something too. Now, after two years, I trust we both heard right from the God who does indeed still speak.
It is easy to be so burdened by everything else that there is no room to add one more thing. Yet perhaps like Mary of Bethany at Jesus’ feet, we find that few things are truly needful, and only one is absolutely essential — the act not easily added to the mix of life: to listen.
I came here to listen to God and because I did, I now belong there with you. But the task is not done. It continues, although now we do it together, for taking time to hear is a forever vocation, even when – especially when – it feels just like adding one more thing.
Realizing it is the only needful thing is the trick.
The Reverend Eric Long, Rector