Faith: The mystery & the process

Ben Nelson, the pastor of St. Mark’s Episcopalian Church, stands in front of the church’s labyrinth – a place of self reflection. DAILY RECORD PHOTO BY RACHEL WILLIS

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Editor’s note: This is the fourth part in a series profiling San Marcos’ diverse religious leaders and what they bring to the community.

“I am a cradle Episcopalian,” is one way Ben Nelson describes himself, and when asked to elaborate he said, “I was born in east Tennessee in the town of Sewanee – where the college is. When I was born, my father was in seminary, in fact, he was in his first month.”

Nelson went on to tell me that Sewanee University is an Episcopalian University and he was born in the “old hospital,” now a college dormitory. He says he could be more of a cradle Episcopalian only if he had been born in the chapel.

Nelson has two sisters, one a public health professional and one a registered nurse. The family has, of course, moved frequently as a result of the profession of the father. Nelson elaborates, “When my father graduated from seminary, we moved to Gulfport, Mississippi. From there, we moved to a small town in north Alabama. Our next move was to Clarksdale on the Mississippi Delta. It’s a small town next to nothing. When people ask me where I’m from I say the Mississippi Delta.”

At which point I asked how far/close is it from Tupelo, Elvis’s childhood home? “Due west,” Nelson replied. “The Delta is where you get the blues and jazz and is the home of some of the greats: W.C. Handy, Muddy Waters, and others. Mississippi is a beautiful state and I think I like to claim the Delta as home because the people there have such a gift of gab and are so good at storytelling and I fit in with that group.”

Nelson, then in a more expansive description of the Delta, quoted William Faulkner, a Mississippian and an Episcopalian, who said, “To understand the complexities of the United States, you must first understand the complexities of the Mississippi Delta.”

“The Delta is a place of huge paradox and mystery,” Nelson said. “It has a puritanical side of beauty and kindness, but it also has a dark side.” He describes the people who settled the area as adventurous, untamed and independent; who cut homes out of the wilderness and built huge plantations. Cotton was king and was a significant influence on the culture of the area.

“I did undergraduate work at a small Methodist college, Millsap college in Jackson, Mississippi – a small liberal arts school,” Nelson said. “It has been said the Ole Miss Law School is the home of Millsap liberal arts students, and sure enough, I took that path.”

Nelson explains that he was drawn to law school because he had worked for the Attorney General of Mississippi on his political campaign. By Thanksgiving of the first year, he recognized that was “absolutely the wrong career choice” for him.

“So, I left law school and for a short time, I worked for the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” Nelson said. “Then, I got a job as an admissions counselor at Millsap and that’s when I started the discernment process.”

“The discernment process? Explain,” I said.

“The discernment process is a beautiful thing. The world could use more of its principles,” Nelson said. “It’s what we do to become a priest in the Episcopal church. But I saw it as a chance to explore what God was calling me to do. What has God given me as gifts and talents and how was I to use them in the world. I like to quote the prophet Micah, ‘Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.’ And, so how do I live that out.”

One of the facets of the process was the establishment of a group that met once a month and prepared questions for Nelson. It consisted of lawyers, psychologists and other professionals. Nelson, in turn, asked the group questions and he describes them as “a really good group of people.”

“So, what is the aim of the discernment process?” I questioned.

“The aim of the discernment process,” Nelson said, “is to listen to what God is calling on you to do in this world.“

“Meanwhile,” Nelson volunteered, “my mother and father moved to McAllen, Texas which is in this diocese.”

Coincidence? Preordained? Blind Luck? Jim Polk, the bishop of this diocese and former priest of St. Marks in San Marcos, when he heard that Nelson was in the discernment process, invited him to come to this diocese to complete the program.

At this point, I was curious to get Nelson’s description of “the call,” a term used by almost all pastors, ministers and priests I have encountered.

Nelson began with the preface, “This is my theory and I think it is church philosophy, as well. Every human being is called to do something, to pursue a vocation – a writer, for instance. But one of the most prevalent and important vocations to which we are called is friendship, to care for one another.

“My call was not a flash of light, an involuntary promise to God, a call from God that I was specifically chosen for his clergy. The call for me,” Nelson said, “was that gentle nudge, that soft touch where I was so comfortable doing the work of the church. And so it came from external and internal sources.”

The external sources, according to Nelson, were subtle, suggestive and probably unintentional. Questions, such as, “Have you ever thought of being a priest like your daddy?” “You would do well as a priest.” were motivators of an almost unconscious source.

“For example, Nelson explained, “my Sunday School teacher reminded me frequently, that ‘you’ve got more to do in the world than just be a… whatever I was at the moment.

“The internal part of my call was that the more I listened, hearing the content of the scriptures, the church liturgy and the language of the church, the more I was moved toward the ordained life.”

I interjected that among some, there is an embedded need to help people.

“There are multiple calls for all of us,” Nelson replied. “I’m called to be a dad, I’m called to be a husband, I’m called to be a priest.

“For me, it wasn’t sudden. There were just circumstances, events and friends that pushed me toward the church. So, I just gave up and said, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’ And becoming a priest in the Episcopal church is a process and if the door gets shut, so be it. The door was never shut.”

“The call from the Bishop of this diocese – San Antonio might as well have been Australia to a kid who grew up in Mississippi – was a total surprise,” Nelson said. “I was assigned as a curate to the church in Corpus Christi for about two years. Had a great mentor there. From there, I went to a church in Chattanooga, Tennessee where I had another great mentor for five years. I then was assigned to the diocese of Hawaii where I was the priest of a church in Kapa’a on Kauai.

“Next I came to St. Marks in San Marcos.”

Connecting his stay in Hawaii with a course he taught in St. Mark’s Wisdom School, I was interested to hear Nelson’s discourse on water, since two-thirds of the earth is covered with water.

“I received a doctor of divinity at Sewanee University and a project that I worked on was a program that examined how we connect to water. Lacking a scientific background, I am told the human body is about two-thirds water as well. I don’t think that’s an accident.

“And, water is a central theme in the scriptures. ‘Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters and let it divide the waters from the waters. (Genesis 1:6)”’ The Red Sea, the River Jordan, baptism, stilling the waters of the sea, walking on water. So the goal of this project was to allow the people to experience water and the river in reverence and as central to their faith.”

I commented that the recent ow wow of the tribes was conducted at the sacred site of the San Marcos River.

“Oh yes,” Nelson remarked, “people have been coming to the springs for 14,000 years for purposes of healing and wholeness and holiness.”

When confronted with the layperson’s difficulty understanding and showing the reverence for rituals of all sorts, Nelson replied that his heart is broken when he hears that “church is boring.” And he went on to express his understanding that it is not easy for that layperson to grasp the history, the reverence and the meaning of church rituals.

However, he said “The church is one of the places that makes meaning out of our gathering. We gather around ‘this table’ in memory of our faith. And it isn’t a nostalgic memory or a simple act of tradition. People are hungry for meaning. It seems we have lost the importance of mystery. As a priest, I am an ambassador of the mystery.”

When I expressed my difficulty understanding the mystery of faith, the greater scheme of things, the effect of a 33 year old carpenter 2,000 years later, Nelson’s response was, “My goal is not to understand, but to love and seek justice. I’m not a goal oriented person. I’m drawn to the process. And, the process involves the mystery of faith.”

Changing the tenor of the interview, I asked about his goals, aims, wishes for St. Marks. Nelson said he simply hopes the people will listen. Listen for their call to be faithful; to be in relationships, friendships. He went on to point out that Episcopalians are not of one mind on any given topic. A discussion of the history of the formation of the church followed. That led to the topic of diversity.

Nelson said that one of the great pleasures he gets from his position is knowing that as he looks out over the 200 or so attendees each Sunday, there are professionals, laborers, housewives, professors, and people from all walks of life come together to share, to know each other and to worship.

A “cradle Episcopalian” indeed. With the build of an athlete, the approachability of a used car salesman, the Mississippi Delta persona, Nelson could be mistaken for a high school football coach.

He is a man of humility, deep faith, a secret intellectual, interested in all humanity, a complex personality, approachable and understanding. A man of many parts.

San Marcos Daily Record

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