30 Seconds of Glory The Rev. Dr. Deborah J Johnson of Baltimore's Church of the Redemmer had faith that her blessing of the national Christmas tree would meet the calling

December 10, 1998|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

Until the very moment that the Rev. Dr. Deborah J. Johnson stepped to the microphone last night to bless the national Christmas tree, she had never spoken her prayer aloud.

She had thought about it, of course. She had to. Thirty seconds she had been told, advised, reminded, warned. Thirty seconds, no more, no less.

It wasn't the blessing's time-limit that concerned her, however. She thought about it long and hard because she thinks about all her prayers long and hard. This is a woman who truly knows the meaning of epiphany. She'll be driving around in her Miata -- yes, she drives a little red Miata -- and something will finally click. Or she'll be at Eddie's, talking with the butcher and suddenly -- lightbulb, there it is. She grabs her notebook and jots it down.

Still -- 30 seconds. She had exactly 30 seconds to bless a tree. And she's not egotistical enough to think anyone would come to the blessing of the National Christmas tree just to hear her. The prayer is the part that people endure, then it's lights-action-ooh-ah-Jose Feliciano-"Feliz Navidad" and where did you park the car, Martha?

But a prayer, even a 30-second prayer, is a sacred thing. Too sacred to be rehearsed, to be chanted in monotone while you hit your mark, like a part in a school play.

"They want me to practice, and guess what? You don't rehearse prayer," Johnson had said a few weeks earlier, sitting in her office at the Church of the Redeemer on North Charles Street, where she's an associate rector. "So I'll give them 30 seconds of mumbo jumbo, but I'm not going to pray my prayer before it's prayed."

Anything can be blessed. Johnson has blessed animals at services from Alexandria, Va., to Paris, France. She blessed her own horse. She blessed a snake. She even blessed the bus when the Church of the Redeemer's choir headed off last month to sing at Carnegie Hall. It was a spur of the moment thing and she allowed inspiration to take her, opening two bottles of champagne and passing out M&M's. Why M&M's?

"For 'make music,' " she explains.

When was the first blessing? "Oh, you're testing my knowledge of Biblical literature. Genesis, I guess." What is suitable for blessing? Anything. Everything. Even things that don't seem like blessings. As Jacob said when he wrestled with the angel: I will not leave hold of you until you bless me.

Johnson knows something about wrestling with angels and demanding their blessing. She was in the second wave of women ordained in the Episcopal Church. It was hard, sometimes, trying to love a church that didn't want her, not as a priest.

"You have to be hot shot," she says about the path she has taken, a path whose twists and turns included the end of her marriage. "Oh, it sounds so arrogant, but you can't be mediocre. And maybe that's true for a woman in any place new."

Reared a Presbyterian by her newspaper publisher father and journalist mother, Johnson ran to New England preppie stereotype. She describes herself as a renegade thrill-seeking Yankee, with what she calls all the requisite Exeter-Princeton ambition. Of course, Exeter didn't take women then. It was at Foxhollow School, in Lenox, Mass., that she discovered the beauty of the Episcopal service.

It was 20 years later, when she was living in Mississippi, that she decided she wanted to be a priest. The bishop sighed and said: "I just don't know what to do with you." It was 1979, only a few years after the first unauthorized ordinations of women. Ten years and three bishops later, Johnson finally was ordained.

Her father, she says, finds it hard to call her a priest -- "too Roman." He calls her a minister. Actually, he calls her his little pastorette. But his style, the courtesy he extends to everyone who walks in his office, from pig farmers to New York's U.S. Sen.-elect Charles Schumer, has imprinted itself on her ministry.

She has worked in churches where people are well-to-do. A letter that arrives at the Church of the Redeemer bears the return address of Robert C. Embry. Hodding Carter was a member of Christ Church in Alexandria when she was there. These are congregations of people with money and power, lives that would seem to be carefree. "Yet I know their hearts can be as broken as anyone's," Johnson says.

A man named Peter once sought her counsel in Alexandria. He had gone through a painful divorce, wanted to marry another woman, and needed Johnson's help to blend their two families. "Faithful people. Really cool people," she recalls. She ended up presiding at their marriage, but she knew almost nothing of Peter's life outside the church.

Then, in September, Peter called. It went something like this: Hey, I'm on this board, need someone to bless the national Christmas tree, you've got 30 seconds. Interested? Sure, yes, absolutely. It was only when the confirmation letter arrived that she found out Peter Norstrand is president of Crestar Bank. Imagine that.

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