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PEOPLE AND PLACES: Where the Spirit leads

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Priest’s varied career eventually brought him to his true vocation

By Randy Patrick

In the story of Jonah, God tells his servant to go to Nineveh, but Jonah refuses and sails for Tarshish. There’s a storm, Jonah is thrown overboard, is swallowed by a fish and ends up in Nineveh.

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Father Karl Lusk’s story is kind of like that.

The 70-year-old priest believes he was called to his vocation at a young age, but he pursued many paths before ending up where he was supposed to be.

He grew up in the railroad town of Paris, where his father was a funeral home director and his family belonged to the Episcopal church.

When he was 16, he had a profound experience at church camp. During evening worship, the bishop gave a talk about serving God.

“When the service was over, and everybody else left, I couldn’t get up,” he said. “I sat there, and I cried, and I cried and I cried. It was just like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’”

What he was supposed to do was consider ordained ministry. And he did. But he also worked with his grandfather, a veterinarian. He tried to convince God he could serve him best by helping people and honoring creation, as his grandfather did. After graduating high school, he enrolled in the animal science program at the University of Iowa.

He intended to return to Kentucky and join his grandfather’s practice, but his grandfather became ill and couldn’t keep his promise.

About that time, an Episcopal priest sat Karl down and told him, “If anybody was ever called to ordained ministry, it’s you.”

Karl did an internship with the church and worked a variety of other jobs to get through college, including one at a funeral home. There was an opportunity to buy an interest in the business, and he reasoned with God that he could best serve him by serving vulnerable people. He transferred his credits to Southern Illinois University and earned a degree in mortuary science. But while he was gone, the son of one of the owners convinced an uncle to sell his interest to him.

Karl stayed in Illinois, became licensed, and was negotiating to buy another funeral home when someone else bought that one behind his back.

“Every time, I had this gnawing feeling that God was calling me to do something else,” he said.

Every time, his response was: “I can do it on my own terms, God.”

Then his father’s two partners wanted to sell their interests, so he asked Karl if he wanted to be his partner. Karl went back to Paris and joined his father in the business, and they also started an ambulance service with certified EMTs.

The business was going well, Karl was active in his church, holding several leadership positions. Then misfortune struck. He came down with recurring respiratory infections. The doctor told him he was allergic to formaldehyde, one of the ingredients of embalming fluid.

He would have to give up his career.

He thought God had played “a terrible joke” on him.

Karl sold the funeral home and took a job with a company that restored historical railroad equipment. He had always been fond of trains and was a model railroader. His relatives worked for the L&N.

That job led him to a job with a transportation history museum in North Carolina, and while there, he got an offer to be the executive director of the Kentucky Railway Museum in New Haven.

“That’s what got me to Nelson County,” he said.

His wife, Anne, a special education teacher from Georgetown, was the daughter of the newspaper sports editor Karl had worked for as a stringer in high school. He and Anne were about to become grandparents, and they decided time was right to return to Kentucky and be closer to the family, so he took the job.

He also took a job on the staff of the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky.

“I thought, ‘OK, maybe God will leave me alone now. I’m working for the church.’ But that wasn’t quite how it worked out,” he said.

Bishop Ted Gulick sent Lusk to a new church in Campbellsville as a lay missioner, and after a year, he sat him down and told him what the bishop in Iowa had told him long ago: “You’re called to ordained ministry, whether you like it or not.”

Again, Karl sat and wept. This time, he accepted God’s will.

He enrolled in Louisville Seminary, was ordained and became vicar of the church in Campbellsville.

It had taken four decades, but he was finally a priest.

He also was an EMT, a firefighter and a chaplain to firefighters and other first responders.

“I’ve always been on somebody’s volunteer fire department since I was 16 years old,” he said. “It’s a family tradition.”

Lusk’s work as a chaplain for the New Haven and Rolling Fork fire departments led to a chaplaincy with Hospice, and then another, with Flaget Memorial Hospital, where he still works part-time.

In 2009, the rector of the Church of the Ascension in Bardstown went to Texas, and Lusk was offered the part-time position. He was already living in Nelson County and working part-time at the hospital, so it made sense to accept it.

He described his seven years as Ascension’s pastor as “a rewarding experience.”

“I’m a country parson. That’s who I am,” he said. “A big-city church is not a place where I would function well.”

But he’s at home at the little red brick church with its little flock.

It fits well with everything else he does, including helping hurting people when their loved ones are sick or dying, working with other church folk to shelter the homeless, being an auctioneer for charities, being an engineer for children on museum train rides, writing a newspaper column.

It’s all connected. It’s about gathering people and helping them find their purpose, as others helped him find his. He believes his long and winding road to the priesthood may have been the right route for him.

“It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t go to the seminary when I was 22 or 23 years old,” he said. “I had lots of lessons to learn, and I have, I hope. I think we all need to be lifelong learners.”

Next year, Karl will be eligible to draw his pension, but he doesn’t see himself ever retiring. He’ll still be involved in the church, and in the chaplaincy. He also hopes to write a book, maybe a memoir of a country parson.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said, to be part of other people’s lives, and he wants to share what he’s learned.

Karl recalls a memory from his childhood, of a carousel at an amusement park in Lexington. There was a brass ring on the canopy, and if a child could reach and grab the ring as he went around on his wooden horse, he got a prize.

He relates that memory to his purpose.

“It’s not about me, it’s about helping folks stand up in the stirrups of their own carousel horse and reach for that brass ring on the merry-go-round of life,” he said.