Among Friends: Stories from the Journeyby Jim Sichko, Jonathan Ryan, Chas Allen
“This book is my Midrash.” With these words, Father Jim draws us into his life story, full of laughter, tears, and service. Among Friends is a compilation of short stories and insightful lessons experienced on his many travels as a clergyman and motivational speaker. Whether recounting his sobering flying experiences, the time/i>
“This book is my Midrash.” With these words, Father Jim draws us into his life story, full of laughter, tears, and service. Among Friends is a compilation of short stories and insightful lessons experienced on his many travels as a clergyman and motivational speaker. Whether recounting his sobering flying experiences, the time he met the pope, his encounter with the “Weed Man,” or his “lead foot,” Father Jim teaches us lessons through powerful storytelling. As he takes us along on his journey from getting kicked out of seminary to hosting celebrities, such as Dolly Parton, Harry Connick Jr., Martin Short, and former first lady Laura Bush, at his small Kentucky parish, Father Jim shines a light into the corners of the human heart to expose our need for God and the love He alone can give us. You will laugh, cry, and be taken aback by his honesty. In all, Father Jim shows us what it means to love God, love others, and live life Among Friends.
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By Jim Sichko, Chas Allen, Jonathan Ryan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE BEGINNING ...
Ancient Jewish Rabbis put together books called "Midrash." These books consisted of stories, reflections, and speculations on the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament for Christians). The teachers wanted people to read these stories and reflect on them to find deeper meaning in God's word.
This book is my Midrash. In addition to being a priest for fifteen years, I've traveled all over the world. I've preached to many different cultures and people. I've learned to say prayers in different languages. Although I can't claim the wisdom of the ancient Jewish sages, I've learned a lot through my own mistakes and crazy experiences.
Along the way, I've met a lot of people (especially Highway State Troopers), and listened to their stories. I've included their tales, my experiences and God's word in my talks. People seem to love them and I love seeing their reactions. I love moving people to tears, laughter, and watching them embrace a deep sense of joy found in God. Somehow, He uses my life to transform people and help them find His Good News in the person of Jesus Christ.
Really, what more could I want?
For many years, people kept telling me I needed to write a book and put all my stories in one place. Finally, I broke down, opened my computer, and hammered it out. I discovered a newfound admiration for those who can turn a phrase on the printed page. As I sat at my desk, sweating, drinking vast amounts of water and looking at a dictionary, I realized God didn't call me to be a writer. I'm a preacher, and I admire people who can string words together and make sense.
Still, as you hold this book in your hand – via old-fashioned print or a new-world e-reader or tablet – you know I made it through alive.
As I learned in every part of life and ministry, no goal is ever accomplished alone. This book, Among Friends, is a product of hard work with my own personal scribes, Chas Allen and Jonathan Ryan, both authors and fantastic writers in their own right.
Believe it or not, I taught Chas in ninth grade at a Catholic high school. Years later, our paths crossed again when Chas got involved in an art heist. One of the largest art thefts in history, Chas found himself on international news outlets, and I recognized him as a former student.
Although I prayed for him on a daily basis, I couldn't visit him during his six-year sentence in federal prison. He told me later about the isolation, embarrassment, and humiliation. Still, he drew closer to Christ through the experience and repented of his sins.
After Chas paid his debt to society, our paths crossed once again, and we began communicating. His knowledge, rooted in the journey of his faith, and gift for the written word impressed me on all levels. A published author himself, we started talking about my book. He offered to help me in writing up my little Midrash for people to take home after one of my talks.
I met Jonathan through a parishioner's daughter who is now my literary agent. He just completed a horror mystery novel that will be in bookstores October 2013. His natural ability to spin a yarn on the page made him a natural choice to help me hone my stories. Just know, unlike his book, mine won't keep you peeping around the corners and sleeping with the lights on.
And, so, the journey began.
Allow me to give you a word of advice for when you read this book at bedtime or in the morning at the coffee house. Don't read it straight through like a novel. You'll notice that I jump around, tell stories and give personal reflections. I did that on purpose. I want you to enjoy the book by reflecting on it, talking about it, and letting it transform you.
You might even disagree with much of it, and that's great. Just tell everyone why.
Like the Midrash of the ancient Jewish scholars, I hope it prompts you to talk about God's word, His love and the mystery of His presence. Many of the stories are just as they happened. Many are imaginative retellings of real events. Some are just plain made up to make a larger point.
And what is that point?
As a priest in Christ's church, I hope it draws you closer to the One who rules our lives, made the world and died for our sins.
So, let's reason, laugh, cry, and walk together through this Midrash.
Amen? Amen.CHAPTER 2
"Jim, I would like to talk to you at the retreat center right away."
I swallowed hard as I held the phone. When the priest in charge of your ordination studies says those words, it tends to put you on edge. The grim and serious tone in his voice didn't help matters.
"Um, can I ask what this is about, Father?"
"Just please come out to the retreat center, Jim."
"I've just packed my car and am ready to go back to New Orleans–"
"To continue your studies after Christmas break, yes, I know. Right now, please."
With a terse good-bye, he hung up.
As I drove to the retreat center, a ton of bad thoughts ran through my mind. I thought through every scenario, but nothing made sense.
What could possibly be wrong? My evaluations from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans were excellent from all my professors and teachers. No one filed a complaint against me, or seemed to object to me pursuing the priesthood.
Maybe, I thought, someone committed a paperwork snafu after all the chaos in the diocese at the moment. The bishop, my personal mentor, had passed away a few months before following a battle with brain cancer. As expected, it left things in a bit of a mess with no replacement named. I knew everyone was playing catch-up, and maybe Father wanted to see me to tie some loose ends.
Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't right. As I drove into the parking lot, I took a few deep breaths.
Come on, Jim, get a grip. It's probably nothing.
I walked into Father's office and he didn't smile.
A bad sign.
"Jim, I'm going to make this short. You're no longer allowed to continue studying. You're being dismissed from your studies."
I felt as if he had punched me in the face. In some ways, I wish he had.
"Why? I don't understand ... I mean–"
"There is no room for discussion, Jim. I suggest you go back home and find something else to do with your life."
I didn't say anything and got up to leave. As I sat in my car for a moment, tears welled up in my eyes and my stomach churned. Everything I'd worked for the past few years was gone. I felt betrayed by the church I loved. I gave my life for her and she slapped me in the face.
This can't be happening. It just can't be happening.
I started to drive home.
Everything, I'd given up everything. Ever since I was a boy, I wanted to be a priest. Now, it was all over, done.
Twenty years later, the pain of that experience still feels a bit raw. Many people ask me about that feeling of rejection. They want to know how it felt to be thrown out with no explanation.
From the look on their faces, I can tell they don't understand why I didn't just give up and find a different career.
The unspoken questions are: Why didn't you just go and do something else? Being a priest is hard, right? Why didn't you just leave it alone?
It's true: being a priest is hard, and maybe I'm just a bit crazy. In fact, I am crazy, but that's not why I'm a priest. I mean, it's not exactly a normal thing to want to be a priest. God's call is a huge part of it, and it doesn't come to many people.
This priestly call is about giving up what many people consider important or what brings joy. Priests give up the idea of offspring of their own. They give up marrying a woman to walk through life with them. To many people in our culture, this makes no sense at all.
I've often wracked my brain for ways to explain it to others. So, I came up with this explanation: those of us called to the priesthood exchange some joys for others. The joys we get in return are to serve God, His people, and lead them to change the world through His Grace. And, the past fifteen years as a priest have given me a vast amount of joy.
So, how did I get that call?
Let me tell you a story about that ...
Even though I was born in Pittsburgh, I grew up in Orange, a small town in Southeast Texas. I was raised in a Slovak/Italian Catholic family. The church acted as our community and heartbeat that bound us together. In the Sichko household, my parents taught us the importance of getting together and worshiping with God's people. I embraced that idea and loved every moment of Mass.
I loved the incense on holy days. I loved statues and stained glass of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I loved the stories of the saints and martyrs. I loved going to Catholic school.
In third grade, we talked about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I raised my hand and said, "I want to be pope!"
But, hey, if you think about it, I'm still in the running.
As a kid, I used to play priest. Honest truth. While other kids pretended to be baseball players or policemen, I handed out Pringles or Nilla Wafers, since, as you can guess, they're the closest objects I could find to the shape to the "Hosts" of communion.
My parishioner at the time, my dog Sheba, waited to be fed by the one speaking to her. Come to think of it, we're all a bit like that, being fed by the One speaking to us.
So, while I knew I wanted to be a priest early in life, something threatened to derail that call. As with most tempting things, the threat came from a good gift of God, my singing voice. The Devil is always at his best when he twists God's goodness for his own ends.
As a kid, my parents sent me to a local college for singing lessons. Everyone, from the nuns to my friends, told me my future would be in singing. I began to believe them and pushed myself. I dropped other commitments and focused on becoming a classically trained singer. Throughout school, I dedicated myself to the idea that I would bless the world with my voice.
Somewhere in the back of my head, I felt a nagging pull, a tug and even a little voice whisper, "I want you to be a priest."
I ignored those feelings and auditioned for the Boston University School of Music. Not only did the audition go well, but a member of the Tanglewood Summer Festival, summer home to the Boston Pops, sat in the audience. They offered me an opportunity to attend for the summer, a rare opportunity for an 18-year-old.
Imagine my pride, my excitement and crazy joy at the idea. All my hard work as a kid would finally pay off.
And, what a payoff! I sang with the Boston Pops. I babysat for Yo Yo Ma's son Nicholas. I grabbed a burger with the legendary Leonard Bernstein. As the kids in my youth group say, I was "living the dream."
In my family's home in Texas, my mom keeps framed posters of all the autographs I received that summer. Everyone gave me the nickname, "Autograph Hound Sichko." The posters, personalized to me, give testimony to that fantastic summer with names like Kiri Te Kanawa, Maestro Seiji Ozawa, Leonard Bernstein, and Pianist András Schiff.
All my creative cylinders fired that summer. Still, as I attended daily Mass at St. Ann's Catholic Church, located just blocks away from Tanglewood, I would kneel, pray, and receive the Eucharist, and not be able to shake the idea of being a priest.
In the end, I gave Boston University a pass and chose the New England Conservatory of Music. I majored in Vocal Performance and Opera, with some of the best teachers, coaches, and general education around. Everyone told me a worldwide classical career was in my future.
Yet, I hid a secret from everyone — a secret that I would share with no one, a secret that would have shocked all who knew me.
I started to research how I could use my singing gift in the Roman Catholic Priesthood. The desire to be a priest that always remained near the surface finally broke into the open.
On a hot July 4th, the Boston Pops practiced for their performance at Tanglewood. As a camper, they gave me an opportunity to sing a solo that night.
During the rehearsal, I think I kept missing my notes, cues, and intros. Finally, my voice teacher, a dignified lady with gray hair, asked me, "Jim, what do you want to do?"
"I ... I just don't want to do this anymore."
She gave me a long, searching look.
"Well, what do you want then? Do you want another piece of music?"
I heard myself blurt out, "No, I don't want to sing! I want to be a priest. I want to serve God's people and preach the Word throughout the world."
She immediately responded, "Well, go and do it and stop wasting my time!"
This memory always cracks me up. God always uses strange things to get my attention, and I'm pretty convinced that the Holy Spirit used my voice teacher that summer day.
All of those memories ran through my head as I drove home from the retreat center. I had given up a possible world-famous singing career. I had given up all the respect and power that came with it.
In only a matter of minutes, I'd been dismissed from my dream of the priesthood.
God wouldn't let this happen ... Would He?CHAPTER 3
When I got home, I sat on our couch, dazed and confused. The autograph wall seemed to mock me with my lost opportunity.
Dear God, did I miss You? Should I have just been a singer?
I looked at the phone and realized I needed to hear a supporting voice. Any voice, since God didn't seem to be speaking to me at the moment.
The first call went to my mom and sister. They'd gone on a shopping trip to Houston. Thankfully, they hadn't left the hotel room. (This was before cell phones, remember.)
"Mom, I ..."
"Jimmy, what's wrong?"
"They kicked me out. I can't go back to seminary."
"Mom? Are you there?"
"There has to be a mistake."
"No, Mom, I mean, maybe there was, I dunno. Father told me today."
"Jimmy, we're going to be home as soon as we can. Sit tight. I love you."
"I love you, too."
"Go next door to Barb and Don's."
After I hung up, I did just that. I must've looked like a train wreck victim when I arrived at our neighbor's house. Barb and Don Ori, friends and family, gave me more tea and sympathy than I can remember. They took one look at me, brought me into their house and let me dump all my hurt on their living room table.
When I finished, they said, "So, what are you going to do?"
I know they asked the question out of genuine concern, but I honestly couldn't answer.
Don looked at me. "I mean, this isn't the final word, is it? Can't you fight it? Especially if you think Father was wrong?"
"I guess ... I mean, what if Father and the diocese aren't wrong? What if I'm not supposed to be a priest?"
They both laughed and said, "Jimmy, if there is one person in this world called to be a priest, it's you. Figure out how you can appeal the decision and go from there."
I sat back on their couch and put my head in my hands. My friends didn't realize there would be no appeal process, at least with my home diocese. Still, there might be other ways forward, and I couldn't lose hope. God used my family and extended family to help me see the truth. If I believed God called me to the priesthood, I needed to find a way.
This is why I laugh at commercials that talk about "being your own person." If I believed advertising, I would still be moping in the corner, complaining to God about how He never speaks.
He does speak. All the time. Most often, it's through other people, their voices, mannerisms, and in their own way of saying things. It's the way He always moves, even when He wrote His own book, the Bible. He used the prophets, poets, apostles and others to speak to the whole world. He used their personalities and their shortcomings. That's the way He works.
Okay, God, I got it. I'm going to figure this out.
I went home and called my seminary spiritual director, Father Tony Ostini.
"Jim, how are you? Ready to come back?"
The light tone he answered the phone with stopped, and he went into "Confessor" mode.
"Jim, have you decided to give up being a priest?"
"Well, no, actually ... my diocese told me I can't go back."
I recounted the conversation at the retreat center.
"No, we can't let that happen. I won't let that happen. I'll do whatever I can. I'll get Sister Elizabeth to write a letter of support as well. She knows you well, right?"
Excerpted from Among Friends by Jim Sichko, Chas Allen, Jonathan Ryan. Copyright © 2014 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Father Jim Sichko is a priest of the diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. He was ordained to the Ministerial Priesthood of Jesus Christ on May 23, 1998. He travels throughout the United States giving missions, retreats, and days of recollection. Known for his storytelling, Father Jim weaves everyday life experiences with the rooted messages that lie within the Gospel. He is booked for speaking engagements through 2015. Each engagement lasts a minimum of three days and averages three thousand people per night. Father Jim completed his undergraduate work at New England Conservatory of Music in vocal performance and received a master of divinity degree from Sacred Heart School of Theology.
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