Speak, for Thy Servant Hears

The Christian minister and writer Frederick Buechner tells the story of attending a dinner party shortly before starting at Union Theological Seminary. "I understand that you are planning to enter the ministry,” his hostess said. “Is this your own idea, or were you poorly advised?" By then Buechner was already regarded as a promising young novelist, and he later ruefully acknowledged that "people who admired me as a writer were by and large either horrified or incredulous.” He eventally came to realize that his ordination to the Presbyterian ministry was probably a bad move for his writing career, since many potential readers assumed he was some sort of religious propagandist. He wound up spending fewer than 10 years in the pulpit, serving as school minister at Phillips Exeter Academy, where I encountered him as a student in the 1960s.

As it happened, I had a call to the priesthood at about the same age as Buechner did. Like him, I could not claim to have been poorly advised, since it was entirely my own idea. My family and friends were, to varying degrees, horrified or incredulous. If truth be told, I was only marginally less flummoxed myself. I was never religious growing up – least of all at Exeter, where Buechner’s influence was almost entirely lost on me and on most of the rest of the student body. I never felt, even much later, that I had a call to the priesthood in the usual sense. At one point the Episcopal bishop who tried to make sense of my calling said I must have imagined myself in clerical robes presiding over communion. But no, I had not. I did not imagine myself becoming a priest at all; I felt I already was one.

I realized, of course, that I must have sounded perfectly daft to anyone charged with weeding out the nut jobs. The bishop was polite, if skeptical. He did not throw me out of his office. He told me there were two kinds of people with callings: those who were called by God and those called by the church. He did not doubt that I had been called by God; it remained to be seen whether I had also been called to the church.

My wife, who is Jewish, did not exactly jump at the prospect of becoming the wife of an Episcopal clergyman. I could hardly blame her, since I was frankly daunted by the prospect of becoming one myself. Why was I doing this? I kept falling back on the same lame statement, “I’m a priest.” This didn’t help matters. “What does that mean?” my wife asked. Damned if I knew. At the time (this was nearly 40 years ago), I had not heard about transgendered people. But it occurs to me now that my situation was somewhat similar, in that my inner condition bore no relationship to my outer circumstances. In my case, my inner sense of being a priest did not even necessarily translate into the ordained priesthood. How could I become a priest if I already was one?

Not knowing what else to do, I applied to seminaries and was admitted to Yale Divinity School and General Theological Seminary in New York. However, as I soon discovered, getting into school and paying for it were two different things. I was then working full time while my wife stayed home with our young son. I determined that it would cost us approximately what I was earning at the time to support my family while I went back to school. My employer was cool to the idea of my continuing to work part-time, and graduate fellowships were nowhere near enough to cover my expenses. It seemed there was no way I could scrape up enough money to pull this off. I had naively assumed that if my calling were genuine, doors would open for me. They did not.

Around this time I came across a story in the Old Testament that settled matters for me – or at least set them on a different course. As a boy, the prophet Samuel served under Eli at the sanctuary at Shiloh. In the night, he heard his name called and went to his master, thinking he wanted something. Eli told the boy he had not called and sent him back to bed. This happened three times. Eventually Eli realized the Lord must be calling his young charge. He instructed the boy to say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears,” if it happened again. Samuel went back to bed and heard his name called once more. This time he replied, “Speak, for thy servant hears.” And so began Samuel’s career as a prophet, which included anointing the first two kings of Israel.

I immediately connected this story with what the bishop had told me about those who are called by God and those who are called by the church. The boy Samuel had assumed his earthly master was calling him in the night, not yet realizing his call came from somewhere else. Now I understood why I as having so much trouble picturing myself as an Episcopal priest. I wasn’t being called to the ordained priesthood at all.

Later I would stumble across a verse in St. Peter’s First Epistle that identified God’s people as a “royal priesthood,” which became the basis for Martin Luther’s doctrine of the church as a priesthood of all believers. Luther denied that priests were a separate order from the laity, as they were in Roman Catholicism. In his view, the priesthood was a calling common to all Christians.

In due course I wrote to the bishop to withdraw as a potential candidate for holy orders. But where did that leave me? I still had this nagging sense that I was priest. But when I looked around, I saw no body of believers who conducted themselves as a communal priesthood. Inevitably, there would be one or two who did all the work, while everyone else sat around and watched. Forty years later, I still think of myself as a priest – but a priest of a church that doesn’t yet exist.

1 Samuel 3
1 Peter

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