Fire! An Ash Wednesday Meditation

The Rev. William C. Redfield
St. Alban’s Church, Fayetteville, NY
August 18, 2013

Luke 12:49-56

It is a heartfelt pleasure to be with you this morning in this wonderful church.  It is very fitting for me at this specific point in my life that I have this opportunity to place my feet here on this holy ground and allow my eyes to take in beauty of this sacred space.  It is timely because I myself am in the midst of a rather dramatic transition, and this place reminds me of what is essential and life-giving.

I would like to share some personal reflections about my current life change with you this morning.  I do this in hope that my comments and commentary might describe something of your own experience and be helpful to you, perhaps in some important way.

As most of you probably know I had the opportunity to grow up here in this parish.  It is here that I experienced my early formation and here where I came of age.  My thirst for mystery and the mystical was shaped at the 8 am Eucharist here, where I was more often than not the acolyte who served with Don Grindy.  In the quiet of that worship time a hunger, a desire, grew in me that steers me still.

Quite honestly, although my parents tried everything they could to convince me otherwise, I hated Sunday school and refused to attend.  For me (even back then) the theological and doctrinal explanations couldn’t hold a candle (so to speak! J) to the experience of simply being present at worship.  Of course, as my life and career in the ministry unfolded over time, I had to achieve a certain fluency in creed and canon; but they could never match the heartfelt sense of mystery that continues to guide me still.

In fact, I guess I continued to be a bit of a non-conformist in my church life.  Although I was ordained here at St. Alban’s over 37 years ago, I avoided parish ministry for nearly half of that time.  You see, I never felt that I was completely in step with the party line of the Church. Both my interests and understandings always seemed to be a little outside the box. I had always harbored a love/hate affection with the institutional Church, and, I guess, to be perfectly honest, I still do.

In the first part of my adult life I was a professional therapist.  Having gotten my Masters in Clinical Social Work at Bishop Cole’s urging and encouragement, I was equipped to earn my living in something other than parish ministry.  Ned Cole, you see, thought that that was important because he foresaw the day when parishes would not be able to support clergy and when clergy would have to earn their livelihood in some other way.  I guess he was only slightly ahead of his time!

When I moved back to Central New York in 1992, my intention was to start a new counseling practice here.  But my life took an unexpected turn shortly thereafter when I suddenly felt an unexpected and unbidden call to Trinity Church in Fayetteville.  (God has such a sense of humor!)   That is its own interesting story that I will leave for another time; but I will simply say that in this calling I was forced to face my deepest fears and felt shortcomings.  After all, what did I—this renegade, non-conformist priest—know about leading a parish?  And what was I going to do with these crazy, out-of-the-box ideas of mine?  And did I mention that my wife Cathy is Jewish and that we were raising our two children in the Jewish faith?  I thought to myself that if this was going to work at all, it was going to be a long shot at best.

But, you know, I loved my nearly 20 years in parish ministry—I truly did.  Because Trinity was my very first parish (although I had been ordained, mind you, for over 17 years when I started), I never tired of suggesting that folks go easy with me because I was just a rookie.  But it turned out that my experience as a therapist and social worker was actually the best training in ministry that I ever could have received.  And because I was a little older and, at that point in my life, a little more comfortable in my own skin, things didn’t throw me.  I think I had developed both the right attitude and the sea-legs for parish ministry.

It also turned out that my overwhelming interest and engagement in peoples’ spiritual growth served me well.  Unlike most other clergy, I was not overly concerned about the survival of the Church in general or of my parish in particular.  Maybe that’s overstating it somewhat; but I was much more tuned into how people were transforming themselves and deepening their lives beyond just church attendance.  I introduced contemplative spiritual practices to those who were so inclined, and we developed a whole program of contemplative practice and interfaith engagement at Wisdom House.  This continues to attract people who are members of the church as well as those folks outside the church—those spiritual seekers who are less enamored with the religious institution.

And ironically, or maybe I should say, “paradoxically,” the church grew.  We found that the spiritual practice programs of Wisdom House—even with only a relatively small percentage of the parish members being actively involved—infused a deeper spiritual presence to our traditional worship.  Newcomers would tell me that they could feel something very special as soon as they walked through the doors of the church on a Sunday morning.  But the influence went both ways, for the conventions and rituals of the church kept Wisdom House tethered to the tradition.

All in all, it was a fabulous twenty years of my life.  But in the end it was cut short without a great deal of notice or warning.  This is the part of my story I wanted to share with you this morning.  You see, it had always been my intention that I would someday retire from Trinity—maybe in three or four years—and hopefully still have enough gas in my tank to pursue the kind of Wisdom and contemplative work that I had initiated at Wisdom House.  I had talked endlessly with my wonderful and gifted friend Helen Daly from Vermont about the possibility of our working together in close collaboration after my eventual retirement.  Helen and I had been involved for nearly eight years in training with Cynthia Bourgeault—our gifted teacher and mentor.  We had gone so far as to draw up specific plans of the kinds of work we would ultimately do together.

But all of this had suddenly changed when Helen developed cancer—a cancer that took her life in a shockingly short time.   As her impending death loomed and as I prepared to say my final goodbyes to her, I truly thought that all of our plans to work together when I eventually retired had gone up in smoke.

But on her deathbed Helen had something else in mind.  She wanted our work to continue and to blossom beyond her death.  So, on that final visit, with the cancer about ready to make its final assault, she and her husband John made me the offer of a lifetime—the outrageous and generous gift to fund my Wisdom work for the next three years or so.  Because Helen herself had learned how fleeting our time is and how quickly things can change, she had wanted me to have the chance to do what I have always wanted to.  But she didn’t want me to put it off.  So there she was, ever so close to death, telling me that it was her dying wish for me to do this work for the two of us and that her part was going to be to provide the financial means for this to happen.

What this has offered to me is nothing short of the possibility of the culmination and the final ripening of my life’s work.  My nearly twenty years with that wonderful congregation at Trinity had been preparing me for this final chapter of this work.  So full of the Spirit was this offer—so generous and unsuspected was it—so preposterous, really—that I simply could not refuse it.  It’s as if a door had opened for me in a place that I never even suspected that there could be an opening.  And so, here I am poised and ready to do this work.

Now, before I say a few words about what this work will entail, you might be wondering what kind of shape Trinity is in with my leaving prematurely—before I had ever intended.  The only way that the congregation could navigate these challenging waters is if they had grown to a place beyond their egos and their ordinary awareness.  The only way they could possibly move through the eye of this demanding needle is if they had learned to embody and live out the principles of Jesus’ teaching of humility and deep surrender.  This, indeed, is the fruit of our Wisdom work together.  I am proud to tell you that all of that is profoundly true and that this is a congregation that is thriving and will continue to thrive.

Here is precisely how I articulated it to them:

…this will mean that you will be called to open your hearts to the new leadership of this parish and to respond to someone else as your pastoral leader.  You will need to give that person your trust and your allegiance, just as you have so graciously given that to me.  And you will need to release me from that. 

Letting go of me in this way will be the deepest way you can honor and love me.  You will be giving to me the spaciousness to do what in my heart I know I am being called to do.  This will be a challenging change for all of us, for we will have to surrender what we have become accustomed to.  And we will have to make room for others in our circle of love. 

But this seems to be how life works, doesn’t it?  Just when we get comfortable with some particular arrangement in life, it shifts; and we must find stability at a deeper level.  We do this best, I think, when we learn to travel more lightly and hold our expectations more loosely.  All the while, though, we hold firm to the trust that God desires to lead us to deeper places of love and risk.

One last point.  In a strange and paradoxical way, your letting go of me in this way allows us to take our relationship to the next and deeper level.  For it is precisely what we have created here together that I want to take out and give to the rest of the Church and the world.  Against all odds, we have not only grown as a congregation, but by turning over the soil of new theological and spiritual ground, we have also been part of a mysterious deepening.  This, I believe, is precisely what the Church needs at this challenging time of decline.  Because of the grace of God and because of our deeper willingness to be open to this grace, we have soared on God’s wings here at Trinity.  And I want to share this gift with others in widening circles.  So no matter where I go from here, this is not just my ministry to the wider Church and the world—this is our ministry.

What is Wisdom then and what exactly what will I be doing?   Wisdom describes an ancient stream of transformational methodology that has existed since the beginnings of the world’s great spiritual traditions.  It is the stream that runs beneath them and informs them all.  And while it is not exclusively identified with any one of them, it can express itself in the deepest levels of them all.

Fundamentally, Wisdom describes a lineage of spiritual knowledge that might be described as a higher level of being characterized by an alert, present-moment awareness; a compassionate intelligence; a substantial reduction in the “internal dialogue;” and the capacity to engage reality directly, without the superimposition of mental constructs and categories.  Yikes, that sounds complicated, doesn’t it?!

But Wisdom is not about knowing more, but about knowing more deeply, from a place deeper than our ordinary mind and using more than our ordinary senses.  It is fundamentally accessed through spiritual practice, like meditation and chanting, and is expressed as a higher level of being or a higher level of consciousness.

Also, Wisdom as everything to do with the Gospel.  In fact, Jesus was a Wisdom teacher and was specifically referred to as such.  Its importance in our Christian faith is that it opens the Gospel reality to us on deeper and more meaningful levels.

Besides continuing to lead some of the ongoing programs at Wisdom House, I will be sharing both the theory and the practice of Wisdom through residential Wisdom schools and retreats throughout Central New York.  Because the emphasis is on transformation, a multiple-day immersion best serves this purpose.  But I will also have a weekly presence at Syracuse University and LeMoyne College.


Jesus has come to bring fire to the earth.  Appropriately, my teacher has used the image of a candle to describe the transformational process.  On the outside a candle appears to be tallow and wick.  But its deepest and truest identity is only made manifest when the match is struck and the candle begins to burn.  In the same kind of way, who we really are can never be exhausted by listing the achievements of our outer lives—our titles, our degrees, our successes, or even our new hair color.  It is only when we allow our inner aliveness to be ignited in a transformational alchemy that we ourselves are set aflame—aflame with love.  That is our work in this life.  May we all, then, be set aflame!