The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Earlier this week I met with a group of lay leaders from congregations in one of the regions of our diocese. Some knew each other; most did not. After we settled in with our sandwiches and salad, I took out a stack of “faith sharing cards” and gave 3 or 4 to everyone around the table. Your diocesan convention delegates and clergy all received a similar set of cards, whose purpose is to stimulate conversations about our faith. Each card has a question, such as:
“When did you first come to believe in God? Share the story of how you came to faith.”
“What is the common message you think Christ wants us to take into the world. Share a story from you life where you were most faithful to that call.”
“What does it mean to be made in God’s image? How does knowing you are made in God’s image impact how you relate to others?”
I invited each person to tell a bit of their story, if they were willing, by answering one of the questions. Two of the group chose cards that asked essentially the same question: “Tell of a time when you felt led by the Holy Spirit,” and “When did you feel as if God were leading you on a particular path.”
One spoke of a time when someone with whom she was friendly, but not particularly close, an acquaintance of several years told her, on the day of her retirement, that he had been diagnosed with ALS–a fatal degenerative disease. He was a young man, an artist without a lot of money and no family in the area. She found herself saying what any might have said in that circumstance, “If there is anything I can do, please let me know.”
He called her a few days later to say that he needed to help with transportation. His team of doctors wanted him to come in every few weeks for an entire day of appointments, and he had no one to take him. “I’ll do it,” she said.
So every few weeks for nearly 6 months, she drove this young man to his day-long treatments. She became his advocate with the doctors. In the car rides there and back, they talked and he began to open up about his estrangement with his family. “This was not how I was planning to spend my retirement,” she told us. But there she was, and there was a never a doubt in her mind that she belonged there. Finally, as his condition worsened, she gently encouraged him to contact his family. She was with him when he telephoned his estranged brother, who immediately drove across the country to pick him up and take him home. She stayed in touch as best she could. When he died a year or so later, she went to his funeral.
Looking back she knew that the Holy Spirit had led her to care for this dying young man. It was a deeply human encounter and a profoundly spiritual one. God needed her, and in retrospect, she saw how God worked through her.
Another leader told a more church-related story. He had been a member of his congregation for many years and had served in a variety of leadership positions. He had been there long enough to see a pattern play out over the years concerning a particular issue–both difficult and contentious–that kept the congregation somewhat stuck. The issue would surface; they’d try to deal with it, anxiety and conflict would take over and everyone would back away. The issue would go dormant for a while, surface again, come to the edge of conflict and anxiety, they’d back away, and so it went. One year he had the strong sense that he was the one called to assume lay leadership as senior warden in order to help guide the congregation through the work of resolving this issue and getting to the other side of it. “It was rough,” he said. “It took several years. A lot of people were angry with me. But I never wavered.” He told us that now the congregation was on the other side and bearing the fruits of having worked through and resolving a difficult issue.
Their stories encouraged all of us around the table to think back on such times in our lives, when we knew what we needed to do and why, when we felt guided along a particular path, chosen for a task. My reason for sharing them is to encourage the same reflection in you: has there ever been such a time for you, when you felt such a call, when you knew that a particular task or responsibility was yours to take on? Often these tasks or responsibilities are not easy, but we have a much greater tolerance for discomfort and challenge when we feel called to the work than when we don’t. Moreover, there’s a power that often comes to us in these experiences, a strength that sustains us. For that season, we can run, as Scripture says, and not be weary; we can walk and not faint.
In the accounts of Jesus’ life, there is a lively conversation in the texts themselves about Jesus’ sense of purpose, of his calling to be who he was and do what he was sent by God to do. Some texts were written from the conviction that from the beginning he knew who he was and why he had come. Any revelation about his purpose was for other people’s benefit, for those around him while he walked the earth and for people like us, reading these stories about him in our time. Other texts suggest that the internal realization of his vocation came to him more slowly, as it does for most of us, and that there were particular moments when he had an “epiphany” or revelation about his destiny, who he was and what he was meant to do.
Whichever side of the conversation a particular text is on, or how we interpret it, in the stories of Jesus’ life there are particular moments when he experiences a moment of clarity about his call, or his experiences cause others to gain that clarity. The experiences are intended to guide him personally or to encourage others to follow him, or both.
You remember the story of his baptism the following week, how he joined the throngs of people at the Jordan River in order to be baptized by John. It seems that Jesus was part of John the Baptizer movement, drawn to his message of fierce repentance for sin. He had the sense that baptism was something he was called to by God, for his sake, for others’ sake, or both. When he rose from the water he heard a voice: “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.” From there he felt the Spirit lead him–drive him some texts say–into a wilderness experience of 40 days’ struggle and prayer, before he emerges to begin his public ministry.
If you’re in church next week you’ll hear another such revelatory moment in Jesus’ life, similar to his baptism. He’s been at his healing, teaching ministry for some time, he draws large crowds wherever he goes, and the conflicts with religious and political authorities are growing more intense. One day he climbs a mountain in order to pray, taking two of his closest friends with him. There, he has a spiritual encounter that seems to transform him, and he is visited by the spirits of Moses and Elijah, two great leaders of his people in their times. He hears a voice, as do his disciples who were with him: “This is my Beloved.” Clarity again is given him. He knows what he needs to do, and from there he makes his fateful journey to Jerusalem.
Today we’re given a smaller glimpse of how Jesus’ sense of clarity and purpose came to him, and was revealed to others. This was early in his ministry, taken from the very full first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. After a flurry of activity–healing throughout the village and in Peter’s own household, casting out demons, whatever that meant–Jesus gets up early one morning and goes to a deserted place, and there he prays. He’s there long enough to cause his disciples to worry and go in search from him. When they find him, he’s emerged from prayer with clarity: “It’s time to go,” he in essence says to them, “Onto the next town, so I can proclaim the message God has given to me, has sent me to proclaim there also, for that is what I came to do.”
What a wonderful thing to be able to say. Can you imagine walking into work or school tomorrow and being able to say, This is what I came to do. Or at home, or in conversation with friends, This is what I came to do.
What did Jesus come to do? To show us what the love of God looks like in a way we could receive it, fully experience it, in the flesh. He came to show us how to live, how to love, how to draw closer to God the Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth yet whom Jesus addressed in the most intimate of parental terms: abba, pappa. He came so that we might do the same. He came to give himself to us fully and for us fully, to the point of death, and to break the bonds of death so that we might live in hope as our own death approaches, knowing that does not have the final word.
Jesus also came as an example, so we could see what it looks like to be fully alive. That “fully aliveness” includes, for everyone once in awhile, a stunning moment of clarity. It doesn’t have to be a big, overarching gift of clarity; often it’s a small bit–enough to get us through a day, or a task, or a season. It’s usually, not always, in response to situations we would not have chosen but are thrust upon us. In the words of Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and lifelong student of human resilience and purpose, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
As your bishop and fellow disciple, I encourage you to spend time in the next week remembering those times in your life when you have received, in some way large or small, clarity of purpose. How did that clarity come to you–through a conversation with another person, because of circumstances you had to face? Did you hear the word spoken to you by another, or through the words of Scripture or some artistic medium? How did God speak to you?
Now if no experience comes to mind: not to panic. Often my mind goes blank over questions like this and it takes time for a past experience to come to mind. If it’s never been part of your experience, you might ask for it, in prayer, and wait to see what happens.
If you don’t already, give yourself the gift of a bit silence each day to allow the voice of God to speak. If you’re sitting, to sit in silence; if you’re driving, to drive without the radio; if you’re walking, to refrain from earbuds. Listen to the silence and see what you hear.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that if you do this, you’ll always receive complete clarity for your life. I certainly don’t have complete clarity and I spend much of my life in the happy and not-so-happy muddle of confusion that is daily life. But when those moments of clarity come, they go a long way in helping us sort things through and make decisions and put ourselves in places of great potential.
I wish that for you. I wish that for the world through you. Because when you make yourself available to God and ask for sufficient clarity to guide your path it is astonishing what God can do in and through you, and you will know that responding to the call given you is, in part, what you are here to do.