Several years ago, I accepted my first parish ministry position. An area of responsibility that caused great anxiety for me was the role of speaking in front of groups of adults.
One day the Associate Pastor in the parish invited me to co-facilitate a Catholic school faculty retreat with him. He explained that he had been asked to lead an afternoon of reflection with a group of approximately 30 faculty members. He thought it would be a good experience for me to give one of the presentations and he would do the other.
After wringing my hands for several days, I finally agreed to “help” him. I worked for hours on the spiritual topic we had chosen. My time frame to speak was one hour but I had enough material for three days! Finally the day of the retreat arrived.
The retreat location was a lovely cabin on a lake. The group had spent the morning with another retreat facilitator and finished lunch shortly before our arrival. As I was being introduced by the Principal, I noticed she was standing at the podium in front of a large picture window with the lake behind her. I was painfully aware of the post-lunch, low energy in the room and noted that most of the participants were looking beyond the speaker as they gazed at the beautiful lake. I wondered to myself if it was too late to run.
My presentation strategy was to look over everyone’s head so that I could concentrate on my material. My tactic worked beautifully until my eyes happened to rest on one of the participants. She was sitting in a lounge-type chair which tilted back. She also happened to be a religious sister wearing a short veil. She wasn’t simply looking slightly sleepy, she was actually sound asleep. I literally froze. I looked at my notes and then looked back at the sleeping sister. Small, insecure voices in my head started to whisper: “They do not like your presentation. You are doing a poor job. You have even succeeded in putting a nun to sleep!”
Not knowing how to fix the problem, I decided to immediately end my presentation. Instead of speaking for one hour, I only spoke for about 10 or 15 minutes. I mumbled a brief “thank you” and sat down while misery and embarrassment coursed through me. The young priest was shocked when I mumbled, “You’re on” and I stared miserably at the floor. He looked terribly confused while he scrambled to pick up his notes. Somehow he segued into his material and managed to stretch his hour long presentation into two. I didn’t hear a word he said nor will I ever forget the terrible regret that I felt. I vowed to myself I would never again accept any presentation roles.
Luckily I wasn’t driving as we headed back to the parish because I would not have been able to see the road with the volume of tears that were splashing from my eyes. I kept apologizing over and over again until he asked: “What happened back there?” I sobbed through the story of the “sleeping sister” and how my material was ineffective, I was not a good speaker and I babbled on and on.
Then he quietly asked: “Did you look at anyone else?” I replied, “No.” He said, “I did. Everyone else was paying attention, and listening to you. Your presentation was very effective. I think you have a gift for speaking and story-telling.” Then he said the words that I will never forget: “I would be honored to do this with you again sometime.” His kind remark unleashed another torrent of tears -- tears of gratitude. Then he laughingly joked, “Just let me know if I need to have a little extra material with me.” We both laughed.
We continued to work together as retreat facilitators, my speaking skills matured and eventually I flew solo. To this day, I believe that without his authentic care and belief in me, I would have never used or developed my gifts in retreat ministry. The Holy Spirit worked through him that day and I will be forever grateful.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be born of water and the Spirit in order to one day be with God. We are continually touched and called by the Spirit through people, events, readings, reflections, poetry, music and whatever God chooses to use in order to reach us.
Today, let us reflect and pray: Am I open to hearing and seeing the amazing ways that I am called by the Holy Spirit? Is God working through me to speak to others? Will I be ready when asked “…to speak the word of God with boldness?” (Acts 4: 31)
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