- About Grace
Looking Back: 50 years as a priest
On August 12, 2016
Please join us at Grace Church on Sunday, August 21 as we celebrate the ordained ministry of the Rev. David K. Fly.
Fr. David was as the 12th Rector of Grace Church, serving the parish from 1981 through 1998.
A reflection by the Rev. David K. Fly
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” A friend of mine says that Jesus probably high-fived Peter when he said those words and then they went home, had dinner, and the food tasted better than it ever had.
But here is my guess. I would guess that Peter and the others had only begun to know who Jesus was. Jesus was certainly important. Yes. He was a kind of super-hero. They had yet to know Him in the very depths of their being. They had yet to know Him as the hope of the hopeless, the one who invites everyone to the table, the one who brings joy and laughter to a world of darkness and despair. They had yet to know that His love would never let them go. They had only just begun to know Jesus.
I identify with that story at this point in my life because this is a time of reflection for me. Fifty years ago, I was ordained a priest of the Church.
On Sunday, August 21, 1966, at 11:00 a.m., at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City, Missouri, Bishop Edward Welles ordained me to the priesthood. I had just turned 25 years old. Now, I find myself looking back and reflecting on my priesthood and the gift that I was given when I was too young to understand it.
Little did I know that at every turn, in every situation, Jesus would ask me, “Who do you say that I am?” My answers to that question would be the stuff of my life and ministry.
In the spring of 1965, before I left seminary for Kansas City and my new job as Canon Pastor of the Cathedral, I went through a time of serious doubt about my calling to the priesthood. Though already a deacon, I had misgivings about the next step. Was the Holy Spirit really working in my life? I went to my favorite professor, Father Tom Talley, and asked, “How do I know when the Holy Spirit is working in my life?” His response surprised me. He smiled and said, “How do you know? Oh, I figure about every ten years. Every ten years or so, take the time to look back – and when you do, you will see the Spirit in your life.”
Some years later, a friend of mine and I climbed a mountain in southern Montana. There were times along the way that I could only focus on what was right in front of me because the going was tough. But there were also times when we came to a resting place and it was so peaceful and the view was so lovely that I could have simply stayed there and not kept climbing. It wasn’t until we got to the very top that we could look back and actually see the path we had followed. And we laughed as we said, “Did we really do that?”
My fiftieth anniversary is a kind of mountaintop experience and I’m looking back and remembering the words of Father Talley. As I reflect, I am overwhelmed by the blessings I have experienced. God has entrusted me with an impossible assignment – to attempt to put words on the unspeakable mysteries of God’s love.
I have to confess that when I drove through the gates of my seminary in the fall of 1963, I couldn’t have articulated what I was called to do – nor could I have known of the rich life that lay ahead. I was still young enough that I wasn’t too far away from the days when I was dreaming of being a fireman or a cowboy. Jesus was my super-hero. And my image of “priest” vaguely resembled that of Barry Fitzgerald in the 1940s movie Going My Way or Pat O’Brien who played Father Flannigan in Boys’ Town.
But then Jesus began to ask the question: “Who do you say that I am?” He asked that question through the eyes of the homeless and left-out people in downtown Kansas City. His question was in the voices of those in the streets after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He asked that question through the college students to whom I was chaplain who were struggling to find faith in the world. He asked that question as I stood at the altar, marching in the streets, or standing at the bedside of the sick.
I suppose if I had to define priesthood for myself it would be “storyteller for the People of God.” That’s been my burden and my joy. And, over the years, the story I have preached can be boiled down to two themes.
The first comes from the baptismal service where I pray that we may be given the “gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.” I believe with all my heart that, as W. H. Auden says, “The world is a temporal one where nothing is as it seems.” My grandmother first taught me that lesson when I was a little boy. Walking along a rocky river bank in northern Arkansas, she said to me, “What do you suppose is under those rocks?” Already a rather cynical six-year-old, I said, “Just more rocks.” My grandmother surprised me. She took my hand and helped me as we knelt on the bank and she slowly began to turn over stones. Under each of them was a myriad of life forms: snails, colonies of minnows, spiders, beautiful lichen, and even an occasional snake. Under that river bank, just below the surface, life was teeming! My grandmother leaned close to my ear and whispered:
The angels keep their hidden places,
Turn but a stone and start a wing.
‘Tis ye with your estranged faces
That miss the many splendoured thing.
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,” writes Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “and every common bush aflame with God.” You and I are called to live so deeply inside the Christian story that we see bushes burn and hear the flutter of angel’s wings.
The other theme that has stayed with me is “Do not be afraid. You are not alone. There is a love that will not let you go.” This theme emerged not only out of my encounters with those I served but out of my own personal experience. In the late 80s, I had a terrible illness that not only put me in the hospital, I was informed on a Friday afternoon that I would face major surgery on Monday morning. Of course, this gave me the entire weekend to worry.
Though I had called on people in the hospital for years, I had never been a patient “in” the hospital. So I worried and I couldn’t sleep. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, my weariness won out and I finally took a nap. When I awoke, a hospital nurse’s aide was standing at the foot of my bed reading my chart. “Says here you’re going to have surgery tomorrow,” she said. “Yes,” I answered. “And you’re scared, aren’t you?” she asked. “Yes,” I managed to stutter. She looked at my chart again, “And it says here you’re a preacher?” “That’s right,” I said. “Well,” she said, “you know all that stuff you preach about every Sunday?” I nodded. “It’s all true, you know.” And she left my room and I never saw her again.
“Who do you say that I am?” She had asked the question that Jesus had asked me many times before and I was able to answer, “You are the one who is with me not only on the top of the mountain but in the valley of the shadow of death.” And I was not afraid.
Well, Father Talley, it’s been a long climb and I’m nearing the summit. But I’ve reached a nice resting place and I’m looking back – the Holy Spirit has been there with me in the past, the Spirit is with me now and I don’t worry about the future. Mostly, I’m giving thanks for the journey and for the people I’ve been with along the way. I wouldn’t have missed any of it.
Years ago, when I was rector of Grace Church, I took a poem of Anne Sexton’s and used it as the basis for my meditation on All Saints’ Day. I’ve used it many times since but it’s never been more appropriate as I celebrate my fifty years as a priest:
The Saints come
As human as a lover’s touch
With a bag of God on their backs
They come marching in.
Crowding together like devout baseball fans
At a game.
Their game is taking God literally,
Taking him at his word,
Though he is sometimes silent.
The Saints come,
Crowding into my memory,
Breathing their holy breath,
Changing me forever.
I turn my head to them
Like a flower to the sun
With their warm life.
Martha, dying of cancer,
Will not give up
Until she has comforted the young priest
Who stands by her bed.
“You’re afraid,” she says
And speaks of her faith.
Each word a drop of water
On his thirsty soul.
Who many times came home half-naked
Because he had parted with his clothes.
When one gives one’s clothes,
One says, “Good morning!”
When one gives one’s clothes,
One gives the suit of God
To a stranger.
Saints have no moderation,
Georgianna, the fat lady,
Behind whose back I secretly laughed
Until I saw her gathering lost souls
Into her house for holiday dinner.
The people were waiting
With open mouths,
Waiting to be fed like nestlings,
And she was there to feed them.
Georgianna, Martha, Herb . . .
Their names are legion.
So many of them sleep in my mind.
But I recall their names –
And, one by one, as they are remembered,
They wake up
To join me here.
There is nothing more beautiful
“Have always therefore
Printed in your remembrance
How great a treasure is committed
To your charge.
For they are the sheep of Christ,
Which He bought with His death,
And for whom He shed His blood.”
The Bishop spoke those words
As I, too young,
Stood before him.
How could I have known that this treasure
Would cost my life
Yet purpose my soul?
The Saints come,
Like sheep in search of shepherds,
They come marching in.
And I move towards them
As the human face moves
Knowing it will be kissed.
For I have learned
And they have taught
That I am only a sheep in Shepherd’s clothing
And together we are traveling
Towards the One
Who calls us each by name.
Tagged with: David Fly