Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’
1 Samuel 3:10
Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
2 Corinthians 12:7-8
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’
Welcome to the fourth episode in this series, The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focused Life. The Way of Love is a rule of life that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has encouraged all members of the Episcopal Church to adopt. In the Way of Love there are seven spiritual practices; faithfully engaging them can help us draw closer to Jesus and to grow in love as he loves. There are the seven practices: to turn, to learn and to pray; to worship; to bless and to go, and to rest.
My focus today is the third practice: to pray, which is closely related to the first two: to turn toward Jesus, and to learn more about him through a daily practice of reading and meditating on his life and teachings. What follows is based on a sermon that I preached at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg on September 30, 2018.
Let me begin with a question: On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your prayer life, with one being not at all satisfactory and ten as the best it could be?
If you’re like most people, including parish clergy and bishops, your prayer assessment number is on the lower end of the scale. Now that may not be true for you; for some people, prayer comes as easily as breathing, which is a gift, or the result of sustained practice. If that is true for you, you are an inspiration and spiritual guide for the rest of us.
But if prayer is a challenge for you, rest assured that you’re not alone. For many of us–and this particularly true for clergy–prayer can be source of performance anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, not to mention skepticism and doubt. If you’ve been in church all your life, it can be hard to acknowledge how anemic your own prayers seem to you. Or if you’re new to church, and you hear everyone reciting strange and beautiful words all around you, it might feel as if you’re the only one who struggles with what the words mean and what difference it makes for you to say them. Don’t worry. Many of us are right there with you.
If you were to ask me rate my life of prayer, in full honesty, I’d have to say that it depends on the day. There are days when I feel close to God in prayer; other days I feel as if I’m just going through the motions. I deeply value the practice of private prayer, yet I don’t always make time for it. I’ve been a Christian leader for over half my life, and there still are times when I feel like I’m starting over in prayer. But maybe “a beginner’s mind,” as the Buddhists say, and a posture of humility, is a good place to start, or start again, in prayer.
At the same time, I do believe that we can make real strides in prayer, that we can become more confident in our relationship with God, and with Jesus. Through the practice of prayer, we can learn tap into the divine source of strength and renewal that is the presence of God in our lives. Through prayer, we can know ourselves to be unconditionally loved. In prayer, we can find guidance as we strive to live meaningful lives. I believe that it’s God’s desire for us to experience prayer, not as a weighty obligation, but rather a source of refreshment and clarity, where we can know ourselves to be forgiven and loved, and where we hand over the reigns of our lives to God. Your will be done, we can say, as Jesus taught his disciples to pray. Your will; not mine.
Maybe this is a good time to ask what we mean by prayer?
As you might imagine, there are many definitions, though most point in a common direction.
If you were to consult a dictionary, prayer is defined as “a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or other object of worship,” and also as “a fervent desire or wish.”
The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer defines prayer as “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words,” a lovely reminder that God initiates and we respond.
A beloved saint of the Roman Catholic Church, St. Therese Lisieux, wrote this: “For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, a simple glance directed to heaven. It is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy.”
And another definition that I like, “Prayer, at root, is simply paying attention to God.” (Attributed to Ralph Martin in his book, The Fulfillment of All Desire.)
But in the end, for me, the most straightforward definition of prayer is simply, “a conversation with God.” (Found in a number of sources; most recently in James Martin’s book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.)
Sometimes we’re aware of the conversation and sometimes we’re not. For we pray most naturally when we aren’t conscious of what we’re doing: when we close our eyes, stare off into the distance, or get lost in our thoughts. We pray in that luminous space at the edge of the day, when we’re waking up in the morning, and just as we’re falling asleep at night. We pray when we feel most vulnerable. Of this kind of prayer, St. Paul writes: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not pray as ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27) It’s astonishing and comforting to realize that the Spirit of God within us is helping our spirit to pray, and that God searches and knows our hearts, as one of our Sunday morning prayers reminds us: “O God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.”
Prayer is also what we do when we gather in church and say the beautiful words that others have crafted. This can be a powerful experience, evoking deep emotions and a sense of connection to something beyond ourselves. We can lean on others’ strength, others’ faith when ours seems distant.
But reciting prayers can feel rote and meaningless, and sometimes they are. They can make us feel inadequate about our own words of prayer.
It’s often said that if you want to make Episcopalians anxious, ask them to pray without a book. I can relate. Years ago, members of the congregation I served had purchased a new home, and they asked me to offer a house blessing. There are lovely house blessing prayers in one of our prayer books, and I was happy to go and offer those prayers at their house. But when I arrived, I realized that I had forgotten the book, and I panicked. Even though the family had gathered inside and was waiting for me, I turned around and drove back to church for my forgotten prayer book. As I drove, I thought to myself, “Well, this is embarrassing. You can’t come up with a house blessing of your own?” After that, I resolved to practice and become more comfortable praying out loud without a text.
We pray with more than our words, of course. We pray through artistic expression, such as music. St. Augustine famously said, “Those who sing pray twice.”
We pray with our actions. The 20th century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was among the many people of faith who answered Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to the join the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Of that experience he later said, “I felt as if I was praying with my feet.” I often feel as if I’m praying when I’m absorbed in an endeavor that involves creativity or sacrificial love.
So there are many ways we are in conversation with God, and not all involve direct speech. But in the time that remains, I’d like to focus on the form of prayer that is an actual conversation with God. It’s what the Quaker author Richard Foster calls “Simple Prayer,” a daily practice of intentional one-to-one conversation with God. (Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (HarperCollins, 1992; 10th Anniversary Edition, 2002.))
Let me ask another question: Do you have a daily practice of prayer? If you do, consider all that I am about to say as affirmation and encouragement in your practice.
If you don’t, I urge you to try. If you’ve tried in the past, and stopped for whatever reason, please consider trying again. If you’re like me and periodically realize that weeks have gone by without my taking time to sit down to pray, don’t be afraid to start again. It’s worth the effort, and here’s why.
Setting aside a small amount of time for daily prayer has the power to change the course of your life for the better. Daily prayer can guide you through the most perplexing times, sustain you with strength when you need it most, validate your gifts and encourage you to take them seriously, give you assurance that you are not alone in this world, and challenge you to be all that God created you to be.
Daily prayer doesn’t require you to step out of your life. If you forget or stop for whatever reason, you can simply start again, without a lot of guilt or concern that you’re a bad person, because you’re not. You don’t have to be an expert at daily prayer. There are few such experts, and I am not among them. Given all its benefits, incredibly enough, daily prayer doesn’t take a lot of time. In fact, it’s good to start small. Prayer’s fruitfulness comes not in the length of our prayers, but in our faithfulness to them.
So here’s a suggested way to begin, or to begin again:
Find a small bit of time each day to sit, or walk, or ride your bike, or drive in your car in silence. No ear buds. No radio or TV. No video games. No texting. No Facebook. Start with 10 minutes if you can. After a while, you’ll want more than 10, but 10 is a good place to start.
And in that 10 minutes do two things.
First–empty your mind by saying out loud all the things that you’re thinking about, are worried about, all that you want to have happen, wish were true, or are grateful for. Ask, specifically, for what you want or need. Ask for help. Ask for guidance. Remember Jesus’ story of the man who banged on his friend’s door late a night. Be persistent in prayer, like that man. Jesus said. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. (Luke 11:5-11)
This is the first step in an honest, open relationship with God. And it’s important to be completely honest–there’s absolutely nothing to gained in trying to be more religious than you are. Nothing you can say or do will be shocking to God. There is no inappropriate topic in prayer. You don’t have to clean up your language or to pretend to be someone you’re not.
Nor does it matter if you aren’t sure on a given day that anyone is listening as you’re talking. You needn’t worry about the doubts that seem their strongest as you sit down to pray. We all have doubts sometimes. Or if you wonder, as we all do, if God exists, or if you don’t know how to imagine God as you pray.
Jesus has helpful advice on that last point. Throughout the gospels he offers many images of God to keep in mind as we pray. The image he himself used most frequently when he prayed was that of a loving parent. Jesus addressed God using the word “Abba,” which is an intimate, affectionate word for father in his language. Jesus wants us to think of God as a heavenly parent who always loves us, no matter what.
I don’t think this means that God is a man, as your biological father is a man. So if “father” is troublesome for you, you can imagine God as a really kind and generous and unconditionally loving mother. Jesus used feminine images of God too. Male or female, the image is simply one of someone who truly loves you, and like the father in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son, is always willing to meet you way more than half way.
The second image Jesus offers to us we pray is of himself, as the one who gave his life for us. He spoke of himself as the good shepherd, one who calls us each by name, and as our way, our truth, and our light. As he shared his last meal with his disciples and was preparing them for his death, he said to them “You are my friends.” Think of me, he says to us, as you would a really good friend, one who always has your back and your best interest at heart. After the resurrection he told his disciples, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” He is with us, too.
So to summarize, in the first part of your quiet time, put to words what is on your heart and mind. If you’re feeling great about something, let God know, and offer thanks. If you’ve got a big decision to make and need guidance, ask for help. If you’re feeling embarrassed or ashamed or foolish or worried, give voice to those feelings as well. If you’re concerned for someone else, or saddened by whatever’s happening in the world, bring those concerns to God.
Of course, we’re not telling God anything God doesn’t already know. But what’s important in prayer is that we speak our truth and invite God into our lives. And you already know, as do I, that prayer isn’t magic. More often than not, the answer to our prayer isn’t granting us what we want, but giving us the grace to accept what we cannot change. St. Paul describes that experience of prayer when he prayed for God to remove what he famously called “a thorn in his side.” “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8) In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis once wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
After we’ve gotten everything out, laying before God, it’s helpful to make a shift in the conversation by saying aloud some some version of what the wise old priest Eli told young Samuel to say the next time he heard a voice in the dark call him by name: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” Then wait.
If your experience is anything like mine, waiting in silence takes some getting used to. You may not “hear” anything at all. Most likely you won’t receive an immediate response, although it can happen. It rarely happens to me, but whenever it does, I pay attention. Once when I was in way over my head in both work and life, I took a walk one afternoon. I didn’t realize at the time that I was praying, but at some point I heard myself say “Is it always going to be this hard?” The answer was immediate: Yes.
Then I heard, “But I will be with you.”
That was enough to keep me going through one of the most challenging seasons of my life. When hard times return, I remember the time when God told me to expect things to be hard sometimes, even most of the time. But that God also promised to be with me, and that God’s power is most fully revealed in my human weakness.
More often, however, what we hear from God comes to us slowly, over time. “Hearing” may not be the right word for the experience. It can be more like a sensation, a feeling, even a source of tension. Whatever you feel or hear, pay attention. Pay attention, and if you can, act according to what’s come to you. While I never know if what I’m hearing is truly of God, I have far fewer regrets from acting on what comes to me in prayer than I do from not acting.
Equally important to remember is that the response to prayer may not come to you during the 10-20 minutes you’ve set aside, but later, sometimes much later, when you are doing something else.
The “speak Lord, for your servant is listening” part of the conversation can also be challenging, because in my experience at least, when I allow myself to be quiet, several voices in my head suddenly get very loud. Many of those voices are harsh and judgmental; some are self-justifying, others are the fruit of anxiety. So I need help when it comes to determining which, if any, of those voices are from God. I’ve learned that it’s good to talk with someone wise and experienced in these matters. You might seek out the priest or pastor of your congregation, a trusted spiritual mentor, or a good friend.
But remember what Presiding Bishop Curry has said about God, something I mentioned in an earlier episode. If the voice you hear, or the sensation you feel, is not one of love; it’s not of God. That doesn’t mean God is a pushover, or fooled by your self-deceptions or mine. But God’s voice, and Jesus’ presence, will always be one of love. It will call forth the best from us and gently chastise us whenever we settle for a lesser version of ourselves.
That happened to me awhile ago, when I heard myself, in conversation with someone, say something unkind about another person that we both knew. What I said happens to be true, in my opinion, but when I said it, I heard a voice inside me say, “Was that kind? Was it necessary? How would you feel if that person heard what you said and the way you said it?” And I resolved to be more careful with my speech.
One more thing: in this quiet time you may also hear what in religious language is known as a call. In other words, you hear, or sense, some claim on your life. It feels a bit like a summons. The gift of this experience in prayer is that it provides clarity, often about something that you need to do. It could be anything, large or small: Call your mother or sister or next-door neighbor, now. Take the next step toward an unspoken dream or emerging potential–apply for a new job; explore graduate school; invite the person you admire out for coffee. While it’s easy to talk yourself out of listening to them, there’s nothing abstract or ambiguous about the bits of clarity that can come to you in prayer. As you grow accustomed to the experience, you will grow more confident in answering the call, following where it takes you, and allowing what you receive in prayer to be one of the guiding lights of your life.
As I mentioned earlier, this practice of sitting quietly, speaking and listening to God with your heart doesn’t take a lot of time. But like most things of importance, what matters is consistency over time. It’s not that different from other practices to sustain health in your life. You can skip those practices, one day or two, even for a week or month. But skip a year, and you’re putting your health at risk. Personal prayer is like that.
That said, there will be times, whole seasons even, when it will feel impossible to find even 10 minutes a day for prayer. Or when you have the time but can’t bring yourself to sit still. That’s certainly true for me. Here’s what I know: God understands. God does not judge, and will gladly meet us on the run. Some of my most powerful experiences in prayer have been in those times when I simply couldn’t do my part, and Jesus showed up for me, wherever I was. One thing to do in those times–take what you’re already doing and make it your prayer time: while you’re walking the dog; driving to school; practicing a sport or instrument. Offer that time as your prayer. Then when life settles a bit, find a chair, sit down, and start again.
Prayer is not the only practice that informs a life with God, but it’s pretty important, and it’s one we have some control over. It’s never too late to start or begin again. It will help you understand why a life of faith matters, why we do and say all that we do and say in church. Because you will have your own relationship with God, with Jesus, one that will grow and deepen over time. You will learn to recognize Jesus’ voice.
In the Way of Love, this third practice, to pray, goes along with the first two: to turn, and to learn. In my daily prayers, I try to begin each day by turning my attention to Jesus before I turn it toward anything else–and in particular, before I check my phone or computer. I also strive to set aside time before leaving the house or tending to the tasks of the day to sit in a chair that I’ve designated as my prayer chair. I set a timer for 10-20 minutes, depending on the day, and begin my prayer time. Often in that time, I will read from the Bible, although sometimes I listen to the Bible on an app before sitting down to pray. Then I say, or write, all that’s on my heart. And I listen, as best I can.
I didn’t always have these particular practices of Scripture reflection and prayer, and it’s important for each one of us to discover the rhythm or patterns that best suit us and work for us in our lives as they are. There’s no formula that works for everyone, although we needn’t start completely from scratch, either. The reason certain practices always come up in descriptions of the spiritual life is that they are tested and true.
A few final words of encouragement.
This comes from Richard Foster, and his now classic book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home:
“The truth of the matter is we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives–altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure, or filled with faith, or anything.”
And this from Adam Weber, a young pastor of a growing midwestern church, in his book, Talking to God: What to Say When You Don’t Know How to Pray: “Keep it simple, honest, and short.”
In fact, why don’t we practice praying right now? I will be guide and time keeper, inviting us all to pray in silence for one minute–the first 30 seconds talking to God in our hearts; the last 30 seconds listening. I’ll invite you at the 30 second mark to say with me, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Let’s begin. (30 seconds)
Now say with me, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening. (30 seconds)
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Welcome to the third episode of the Experiencing Jesus with Bishop Mariann podcast series, season one: The Way of Love. What follows is based on a sermon I preached at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Washington, one of many that are using a Way of Love lectionary you can find on the diocesan website. It features Scripture passages and prayers designed to support an in-depth exploration, in the context of Sunday morning worship, of each of the seven practices that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has commended to all in the Episcopal Church. This is a comprehensive effort to help us all grow spiritually, as we draw closer to Jesus and strengthen our capacity to love as Jesus loves through practice. On the diocesan website you can also find suggested prayers and reading for daily devotions and a proposed small group format.
My focus today is the second practice: to learn; that is, to reflect on Scripture each day, especially Jesus’ life and teaching.
I’ll speak in some depth on the fruits of spending a small amount of time each day reading and meditating with biblical texts. But first I want to approach the topic of learning about God and learning from God in the broadest of terms. For God is everywhere. Everywhere we go, everything that happens, every person we meet can be a means through which we grow in our knowledge and love of God. Periodically I meet with a Jesuit priest for spiritual counsel, and as I share with him the joys and challenges of my life, he’ll ask, “What is God trying to teach you these experiences?” Or “How is God shaping your heart?”
As a framework for this enormous undertaking–reflecting on the expansiveness of God, and the many ways we can learn about and from God–I turn to one of the most beautiful and comprehensive prayers in The Book of Common Prayer entitled “A General Thanksgiving.” If you have a prayer book close by, it’s found on page 836, and it’s easy to search for online. I’ve committed this prayer to memory, for it speaks to me of life’s breadth and depth, how God is known to us through it all, and as a result, how we can live with gratitude, even in times of struggle.
I’ll guide you through the prayer and reflect on its themes as we go. It begins:
Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.
Every corner of creation speaks of God’s awesome power–the vast expanse of interstellar space, the galaxies, the sun, the planets in their courses; the miracle of an infant’s birth; the smell of fresh bread; the sound of someone singing; the sun rising and setting each day. Creation is stronger than we are; we are more vulnerable against the elements that we realize. One of my favorite authors, David Whyte, spent several years as a young man on the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. He describes what it felt like to be in a part of the world virtually untouched by the human species, how out of place, and frankly, irrelevant our existence is there. (See David Whyte, Crossing an Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (New York: Berkely Publishing Group, 2001)) and also his recording Compass Points: Setting a Direction for a Future Life) Indeed, that we exist is a miracle, that we’re here, and have evolved as a species; that we can think with our minds and feel with our emotions. We learn of God, in whom we live and move and have our being, as we live and breathe. So take a breath now. In your mind’s eye go to a place in nature that inspires you. Pay attention to your surroundings and to the inner terrain of your soul. Through it all, you can experience something of the wonder of God, the Creator of all that is.
The next sentence of the prayer reads:
We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.
In loving relationship, we learn of God’s love. It’s the first place we learn of love at all. If we were blessed to be raised by loving parents, surrounded by love on every side as children, we have an easier time experiencing God’s love. Surely, that’s one reason why why invoking God with parental metaphors resonates so strongly. The Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton suggests that behind Jesus’ loving images of God as Abba, the most intimate, familial way of addressing a father in his language, are echos of how his earthly father, Joseph, raised him. (Adam Hamilton, Faithful: Christmas Through the Eyes of Joseph (Abingdon Press, 2017))
Yet we also hurt those we love, and they hurt us. If our parents hurt us when we were most vulnerable, or if we never knew our parents, it’s harder for us to imagine the love of God. Yet whenever and by whomever we experience unconditional love of another, it is among the most transformative of healing encounters. And while no human being loves perfectly, it is through the love of another person, albeit imperfect, that we learn something of God’s perfect love. Jesus was adamant about this, that we are to love one another, for God is love.
The opposite is equally true: If what we experience in human relationship is not loving, that lack of love is not of God, even if it is communicated by someone speaking or acting in God’s name, for God is love. Let me say that again: if what we experience from another is not love, it is not of God, even if that person is acting or speaking in God’s name.
The well-known and beloved Roman Catholic nun, Joan Chittister, tells a story from her childhood that illustrates this point. You may be familiar with Chittister’s work: she’s written dozens of books, several of which are classics on the spiritual life.
As a child growing up in the 1940s, Joan lived in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood where she attended Catholic school. In those years, in many parts of this country, the boundary separating Catholics from Protestant Christians was strict and uncompromising. Many Catholics viewed Protestants with suspicion, and many Protestants felt the same way towards Catholics. Joan’s mother was Catholic; her father was Protestant. Joan knew that growing up and didn’t think much about it.
Until one day Joan’s teacher, who was a nun, said something that caused Joan to rush home so she could speak to her mother before her father came home from work. “What is it?” her mother asked, when she arrived breathless from school. “Today Sister told us that anyone who wasn’t Catholic was going to hell.” Joan’s mother was quiet for a moment. “What do you think, Joan?” Joan replied, “I think she’s wrong.” “Why do you think that?” her mother asked. “Because Sister doesn’t know Daddy.” Her mother smiled. “That’s right. Sister doesn’t know your father.” The clear understanding between them was that if her teacher knew her father, it would be impossible for her to say that God would banish him to hell. Joan’s mother didn’t encourage her to argue with her teacher. But in her heart, Joan knew that what her nun told her could not possibly be true.
We’d have a hard time finding a Roman Catholic now who believes that everyone who isn’t Catholic is going to hell; nor do most Protestants believe that such a fate awaits Catholics. There are some, but it’s no longer the dominant view that it once was, which is evidence that, thankfully, we can evolve in our understanding of God’s love and that even very religious people can be very wrong about God. Joan Chittister, now herself a nun, had been blessed as a young child with a love that surrounded her on every side and transcended the false division between Catholics and Protestants of that time. Love gave her courage to think for herself in the face of an authority figure telling her something she knew was wrong. If it’s not love, it’s not of God.
Moving on now to the next section of the prayer:
We thank you for setting us at tasks that demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments that satisfy and delight us.
We learn of God’s creative energy by what it feels like to be inspired ourselves, through our work. We are created in the image of God who is Creator, and we are most at home in the world when we discover the unique ways we were created to be co-creators with God. The work itself can be as varied as we are: your satisfying and delighting work could be your profession or trade, the work by which you earn your daily bread. It could also be in the garden, as you’re cleaning your home, caring for children, singing in the choir, serving at the altar at church. It could be through works of art, acts of compassion.
For many, our satisfying and delighting work isn’t what we do to pay the bills, though we derive satisfaction from doing that work well. The same goes for our daily chores–they need to be done and it’s a good feeling to do them well.
But it’s the work that delights and satisfies, causing us to give our best efforts no matter the cost, that aligns us with the creative energy of God. In spiritual language, this work is our vocation, our calling, part of the reason we are here.
My husband worked professionally for many years in a job that he did well. It gave him satisfaction, and through his work he helped provide for our family. But his true passion, his vocation in life, was never in his job. You see, ever since he was a boy, when he would go out into nature with his father, my husband has loved to observe and study birds. He can identify thousands of bird species by sight and song. He has studied birds his entire life, and for all the years he was working and helping to raise our sons, he would find time–never enough from his perspective–to go off in search of birds. I came to recognize that look in his eyes as he broached the subject of a bird watching trip, and he would bribe our sons when they were young with a stop at Dairy Queen if they came with him on a birding expedition. He would stay up late at night recording migration patterns, writing articles for ornithology journals, keeping his lists current–and all in his spare time. Now he’s retired from his job, our children are grown, and he is free to pursue his passion for birds around the country and the world. When he’s home, he is cataloging his work, writing articles, and preparing for the next trip. I personally think he’s crazy–well no, not really. I know that it is vocation, as Jesus said, to look at the birds. It’s work that satisfies and delights him. I wonder–what is your passion, the work you satisfies and delights you?
The prayer continues:
We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.
This is a hard prayer to pray. How can we thank God in sorrow? What can we possibly learn of God when our hearts are broken, when tragedy strikes, or when we carry the weight of our failures?
We learn of God’s compassion and forgiveness, often mediated through those who walk with us and help us release the shame we feel. We learn that failure, while excruciatingly painful, does not tell the whole story about us.
The words of an old hymn describe, in part, what God wants us to learn in the hardest of times:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea
There’s a kindness in God’s justice
That is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in heaven
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgement given.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind. . .
(The Hymnal, 1982, 469, 470.)
God is eager to forgive, restore and yes, to teach lessons when our hearts are broken, or we’ve lost our way, or we’ve failed and must start again.
The final two stanzas of the prayer of thanksgiving that direct us back to Jesus are:
Above all we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of His word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, through which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.
Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and make him known, and through him, at all times and in all places may give thanks to you in all things.
Where to learn the truth of Jesus’ word and the example of his life? In the Bible.
I’d like to return now to the specific practice of the Way of Love: to learn by reading and reflecting on Scripture every day, especially Jesus’ life and teachings. There’s is, in fact, no better way to grow spiritually than to spend time each day reading Scripture and listening for God to speak in and through the.
It helps to have guidance, because it’s easy to get lost in the Bible. Reading with 21st century minds and sensibilities, we need those familiar with ancient worldviews and understandings to help us make sense of texts that are thousands of years old.
We do well to pick guides carefully, because it’s possible to be a bullied with a Bible, or to have our intelligence insulted. Every prejudice known to humankind can be justified by something written in the Bible. Remember that even Satan quoted Scripture when Jesus faced temptation in the wilderness.
Still, there is something to be gained by simply sitting down to read. You don’t need to be an expert. There are four accounts of Jesus’ life–the Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each tells of Jesus’ death, and resurrection from a particular point of view. If you’ve never read any from start to finish, I’d recommend you begin with the Gospel according to Luke. John, be warned, is the most complex, and Jesus sounds quite different than he does in the other three. But it doesn’t matter, really, which one you read first, if you read with a spirit of openness, curiosity, in the context of prayer.
Take your time. If something troubles or confuses you, you can do one of two things: skip that part and keep going, or go deeper and do a bit of investigation. Don’t take on too much. A paragraph or two, or maybe a story–no more than a chapter a day.
Of course, chances are good if you’re listening to this podcast that you already have a daily practice of Scripture reading or are part of a group Bible study. Forgive me for suggesting otherwise; let my words simply encourage you in your practice. If you don’t have such a practice and would like some guidance in how to begin, there are many fine tools and resources. You can find a good selection on The Episcopal Church’s website.
What I’d like to leave you with as I bring this message to a close is an example of how reflecting on Jesus’ life and teaching can shed spiritual light on your life. Jesus says in the Gospel of John that we can only speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen. So let me give you a bit of my personal testimony: how God spoke to my life through the particular story from gospels that has become part of my spiritual narrative.
When I was just starting out as an associate priest in Toledo, Ohio, I was also a new parent. As any new parent knows, life was full and complicated. I wasn’t getting much sleep and I often had the feeling, no matter where I was, that I was in the wrong place. When I was work, I felt badly for not being home with our son; when I was with him, I worried about not being fully present at work.
One of the reasons I became a priest was so that I could be an active leader in the wider community. In those early years, I wondered how I would ever find the time and energy for anything except the church and caring for our son. Then I was invited to serve an an advisory board for a local food bank that served as a distribution center for all the meals’ program in the city. I jumped at the opportunity. It wasn’t a huge time commitment, yet it would allow me to fulfill the desire to be of service to those in need.
Suffice to say that it didn’t take long before I felt like a total failure in this endeavor. I managed to make it to the monthly meetings, but that was it. I didn’t do any of the other things expected from board members–such as raise money, visit food sites, speak in the wider community on behalf of the poor. All I did was go show up at the meetings, and as the months went by I felt increasingly inadequate. At last, my term on the board came to an end, and as I was driving to the my last meeting, I prepared a short speech of apology for my lack of engagement. But before I could open my mouth, the head of the board gave a speech of her own, profusely thanking me for my service and listing all the ways that I had made significant contributions to this ministry. She lifted me up as an example of rising leadership in the city. And the whole board applauded.
I was stunned. How on earth to make sense of the praise that the board president showered on me that night? Her words didn’t change my internal assessment of my meager contribution. But I also didn’t get the sense that she was lying to make me feel better.
The next morning, as I sat in my prayer chair and read from one of the Gospel accounts, I came to the story of Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fish. You remember: it tells of a time that Jesus had been teaching before a large crowd all day long. As he was finishing, his disciples approached him and said, ‘Master, it’s late, and there’s no food for all these people. Tell them to go home.” Jesus replied, “You give them something to eat.” “You can’t be serious,” they replied. “We don’t have enough food even to feed a few people.” “What do you have?” Jesus asked. In one version of this story, the disciples had a few loaves and some fish. In another version, a young boy came forward to offer what bread and fish that he had. However they came to him, Jesus took the loaves and fish, offered them to God in thanksgiving and blessing, and then instructed the disciples to distribute the food among the people. There was more than enough food to feed the multitudes, with baskets left over.
As I read this story, I realized I had experienced the miracle of the loaves and fish in my own life. My service on that board was clearly not enough to meet the needs before me. Yet, by God’s grace, what others experienced was something far greater. As clearly as I have ever heard anything from God, I heard, or understood, that day that what Jesus needed from me was to make my offering, no matter how insufficient it seemed to me. Then it was in his hands to do what only he can do.
The miracle of the loaves and fish remains the most important story in my spiritual narrative. Because nearly every day I am faced with a need that I cannot meet, and tasks I cannot accomplish. Nearly every day, I think of the loaves and fish and make my offering anyway. I don’t understand how the miracle of abundance works; I only know that, on occasion, it does.
Sitting in my prayer chair that morning nearly 30 years ago, I wasn’t simply reading a story about Jesus; the story was, in a sense, reading me. It gave me a powerful spiritual metaphor with which to interpret my life and better understand how God chooses to work with us for purposes beyond our knowing.
I’ve had similar experiences with other stories and teachings from Scripture, more than I can count, really. It doesn’t happen every time I sit down to read, but it happens often enough for me to anticipate and expect God to speak into my life through the stories and teachings from Jesus’ life.
There have been times when I’ve studied the Bible in depth, and I know how important it is to have a foundation of biblical knowledge. By way of comparison, I think my husband’s knowledge of birds. When he sees a bird, he has a vast knowledge base with which to interpret it, and so it means a lot more to him than it does to me, as I stand next to him, seeing a bird whose characteristics I won’t remember, because I have no internal scaffolding on which to place it. So, too, the Bible. The more you know about the specific texts and their contexts, the more helpful they can be, and the easier it is to assess their spiritual significance.
But what I’d like to impress upon you today is the value of a practice of reading small portions of the Bible each day. Hear Jesus speak. Watch how he interacts with people. See how people respond to his message, his way of love. Take note of the questions he asks: “What do you want me to do for you? Which one of these was the neighbor to the man in need? Who do you say that I am?” Feel the power of his personal connection to God, whom he calls Father in the most familiar of terms and encourages us to do the same. Read a given text, and then let the text read you, give you insight and guidance and strength for your life, so that you may live every day with thanksgiving to God for the entirely of your life, through which God also speaks. There is so, so much for us to learn.
Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.
We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.
We thank you for setting us at tasks that demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments that satisfy and delight us.
We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.
Above all we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of His word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, through which we are raised to the life of your kingdom. Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and make him known, and through him, at all times and in all places may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.
Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4:1-6
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. . . For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:1-6)
In the very next sentence, St. Paul goes on to say:
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (7)
I speak to you, my friends in Christ–those soon-to–be deacons and all gathered to celebrate this day–as one clay pot to another.
Eugene Peterson, in his interpretive translation of this text, describes us this way:
We are messengers, errand runners from Jesus. It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ.
He goes on:
If you only look at us you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing god’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance at that. (Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (NavPress, 2002), 2 Corinthians 4:1-8)
Amazing, isn’t it? Audacious, really, to trust that the unadorned pots of our daily lives can carry the message of God’s light and love?
Not that there’s anything wrong with being an unadorned clay pot.
The Irish writer John O’Donohue describes us a bit more poetically, as the Irish always do, with a reminder of our relative place in the universe:
Humans are new here. Above us, the galaxies dance out toward infinity. Under our feet is ancient earth. We are beautifully molded from this clay. Yet the smallest stone is millions of years older than us. Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace….The human journey is a continuous act of transfiguration. (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara (London: Bantam Press, 1997), p.14-15)
We gather today for the ordination of these twelve marvelously unadorned clay pots. We testify that their lives are inspiring examples of the creative, turbulent journey of transfiguration.
We see in each one of you, even when you struggle to see it in yourself, the light of God shining in your hearts.
It’s the same light that shined fully and completely in Jesus on the mountain of his transfiguration. You remember the story: Jesus climbed a mountain with three of his disciples. There he was filled with a light that shone so brightly, it seemed to those who witnessed it to change his appearance. I don’t think it did change him. In my imagination, the light illuminating him came not from the outside, transforming Jesus into something he wasn’t, but from within, as a reflection of his inner being.
That same light shines in your hearts, in all our hearts. It seems to change us, and in some ways it does. As we feel the light of God within us, passing through us, how could we not be changed? Yet what is illumined, and illumined particularly in you twelve, is your true self, the person you were uniquely created by God to be, and equipped now to be a vessel of God’s love through the extraordinary ordinariness of your daily lives.
You, in your youness, as Robert Phillips, said yesterday, are called by God to this.
Thank you. Thank you saying yes, for taking the first step, and then the second, and the third, and all the steps that followed. Thank you for the courageous steps that are to come. Thank you for your tenacity and faithfulness. Thank you for your patience, generosity of spirit, and forgiveness for those of us building this formation process as you were going through it.
On behalf of these soon-to-be-deacons and all who will benefit from their leadership, I offer thanks to the congregation gathered and beyond, to families and friends, peers, teachers, and faith communities. The dream of a deacon in every church, which seemed impossible a few years ago, is easier to imagine now because of you twelve, joining the five ordained last year, and the ones coming after you, those deacons who, by the grace of God, have come to us from other dioceses. It could happen, in large measure because of you with the courage to go first.
Will you join me in a giving particular thanks to Archdeacon Sue von Rautenkranz, Canon Paula Clark, the Rev. Robert Phillips, the faculty of the Deacon’s School, and the Commission on Ministry for shepherding the deacons’ formation process?
One of the great privileges of my life is to receive four letters a year from everyone in the ordination process. And let me tell you, these aren’t postcards. I receive epistles, long letters offering a glimpse into the creative, turbulent sacrament of the human journey of transfiguration. These letters describe, over time, the growing confidence of call–what it feels like, on the inside, to hear and respond to a call from God, from life, and sometimes your rector who literally called by telephone to say, “I see a deacon in you.”
Your gradual acceptance and growing confidence in your call gives you, among other things, a finely-tuned intuition, honed by experience, to help the rest of us discern our call, the unique ways that God’s light shines in and through us, illuminating our true essence, and inviting us, in ways both large and small, to make our offering to the world. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, the calls begins not with vows that we make, but the vows made for us, the bond unknown given to us, “that we should be, else sinning greatly, dedicated spirits.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Prelude, (1850) quoted by David Whyte in The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), p. 68)
Your confidence in call helps us all reject one of the most powerful, demeaning, and at times strangely appealing lies of this fallen world: that it’s possible, desirable, and, for far too many, inevitable to live what Walter Brueggemann describes as “an uncalled life,” one not referred to any purpose beyond oneself or beyond the forces of oppression and distraction that conspire to keep us in our place. In contrast, Brueggemann writes, “the called life is a life in process, under way, and at risk.”(Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, The Second Edition. (Augsburg Fortress, 2001)) With a call we are always sent out to the frontiers of our courage. Yet while risky, a called life, is also safe, in relationship to the One who calls, not out of anger, disappointment or judgement, but in love.
To be clear: every Christian, through our baptism, has been ordained into the Order of Clay Pots. We are all called to lives of extraordinary ordinariness through which the light of Christ shines.
You, beloved, have been called to the particular, delightfully peculiar subset of clay pots known as deacons. You have the wondrous, specific responsibility to encourage the rest of us to task seriously our own callings, whatever they might be. Specifically, you are to help us all go beyond the borders of our security, wherever they lie, to serve Christ in our neighbors. Your mandate is to help the Church discern God’s light shining in those, in Howard Thurman’s haunting phrase, “who stand, in our moment in history, with their backs against the wall,” This was for Thurman, in the early decades of the last century, a matter of real urgency and it remains so for us: “What do the teachings and mission of Jesus have to offer those who live every day with their backs against the wall?” (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976, first published in 1946), p3) This is not a call of charity, offered the safety of our benevolence, but of solidarity.
As deacons, along with your roles in worship, in the life of Christian community, and the infamous other duties as assigned, you are to be a bridge between the church, however we define it, and those beyond, exhorting us to love as we have been loved, and to serve as Jesus served.
In closing today, I give you two words: one of gentle exhortation and the other of extravagant encouragement.
The gentle exhortation is to take up for yourself, if you haven’t already, the rule of life that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has set before the Episcopal Church, the Way of Love. It’s not a new rule, simply a restatement of an ancient one, a gathering up of essential practices for a Jesus-focused life. Since July, I have taken on the Way of Love for myself, and while it’s far too early to point to any real fruits of this practice, my inner experience has been quietly transformative. (For those of you aren’t familiar with the Way of Love, you can find ample materials on the diocesan website and that of the the Episcopal Church.) Before you teach them to others, live them for yourself and speak of them only from the bedrock of your experience.
Finally, I’d like to tell you a story to encourage you to embrace the extraordinary ordinariness of your lives and to trust that God’s light will shine through you.
Years ago, I heard a radio interview with Carol Pearson, an author of several books on heroism. The interviewer asked Pearson which of all the heroes she had studied did she like the best. Her rather surprising answer was Sissy Hankshaw, a contemporary protagonist in Tom Robbins novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
Sissy was a remarkable young woman who was born with oversized thumbs. As a child she was subject to all the awkwardness and prejudice that a physical deformity entails. When she was a teenager, her family arranged for her to have plastic surgery on her thumbs, and she looked forward to that. But one day in her adolescence, she looked into the mirror and realized that she was quite lovely. She knew that if she had the surgery, she could have the normal life that others wanted for her, and that she herself wanted. But in that moment her thumbs started twitching, as if to invite her to live life on a deeper level if she dared. So instead of cutting off her thumbs, Sissy went on to become the greatest hitchhiker that ever lived.
In one scene Sissy’s psychologist describes to a colleague Sissy’s uncanny ability to hail cars from the other side of a four-lane highway. The other psychologist comments on Sissy’s obvious success in transcending her affliction. Sissy’s psychologist replies, “On no, she hasn’t transcended her affliction. That would suggest that there was something wrong with her that needed to be transcended. She transformed her life by affirming her thumbs.”
Living by God’s light shining in you is something like Sissy’s affirmation of her thumbs. It’s the freedom that comes when you honor who you are, to see in your bodies, your minds, your circumstances, and even our weaknesses, the wondrously unadorned clay pots through which God’s light shines.
You are called to this–thumbs and all. Blessed are we that you said yes.
Love is patient, love is kind. . . . it bears all things . . . endures all things.
I Corinthians 13:4-7
Sometimes a headline can say it all: Storm passes, but suffering persists. (The Washington Post, September 19, 2018)
Most in our region were spared the effects of Hurricane Florence, a reality over which we had no control, but nonetheless allows us to carry on with our lives largely uninterrupted. Meanwhile, though the storm has passed through the Carolinas and Virginia, great suffering remains.
Those well acquainted with the large scale humanitarian crisis tell us that in the midst of the storm and the days that follow, a great spirit of solidarity and compassion carries people through and, for a time, we are all at our very best as a species. But that spirit, like the storm, also passes, leaving behind a mood of desolation and all the emotions that come with sustained trauma.
That is when long-term relationships, sustained commitment, and a willingness to care after the cameras are gone make their transformational difference. It’s when the church can be the church, not only for its members, but for all in her community. Through Episcopal Relief and Development, as well as our personal relationships, we are part of the long-term healing process, not only in the Carolinas and Virginia, but around the world. If ever you doubt that such sustained caring matters, simply ask those who would otherwise feel most alone.
There are many ways, for all of us, that storms pass and suffering remains. We all carry the scars of past storms; the healing process takes time. Chances are that few people know what suffering you carry in your heart, and you and I never really know what another person is still living with as a result of past storms.
Thus a good posture every day, with whomever we encounter, is one of kindness. When we take the time, before jumping in to whatever business is at hand, to ask, “How are you doing?” with real desire to hear the answer, someone’s heart may open up to us, for just a moment. In that moment, often without awareness, we can be like the Balm of Gilead, and shelter in another’s storm.
Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
Welcome to the second reflection in this series, The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focused Life, in which we’re considering seven spiritual practices that can help us all walk with greater intention, following Jesus in His way of love. The seven practices which Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has put before us all are: to turn, to learn, to pray and to worship; to bless, to go, and to rest.
My focus here is the first spiritual practice in the Way of Love: To Turn and follow Jesus. This recording is based on a sermon that I preached in the context of a Confirmation service, in which 12 young people between the ages of 13-18 publicly professed their commitment to follow Jesus, taking on for themselves the promises made on their behalf when they were baptized as infants.
Turning toward Jesus and choosing to following him is what Episcopalians celebrate and sacramentalize in our services of Holy Baptism and Confirmation. Baptism is when we first come to faith and become part of Christian community. If we’re baptized as infants, with parents and loving adults making promises to raise us in such a way that we know following Jesus looks like, in the Episcopal Church, we’re given an opportunity when we’re older to speak for ourselves, after we’ve decided for ourselves to follow Jesus. In Confirmation we also receive the prayers and blessing of the community gathered. Episcopalians believe that these two rituals of Baptism and Confirmation are sacraments. That is, they are outward signs; they outwardly symbolize inward, spiritual truths: Jesus’ unconditional love for us and our decision to accept him as Lord and follow him.
Hear, again, the order of things. Jesus’ love for us, which is the love of God, comes first. Our response comes second. A relationship with God, and for Christians, a relationship with Jesus, doesn’t begin from our side. It begins with God.
It’s a bit like the relationship we had as infants to our parents and other adults. Those who loved us as infants did so for a long time before we even knew what love was, much less love them in return. We had to grow in our awareness of their love, our understanding of love, and in our capacity to love before we could respond. We learned, and continue to learn, in stages. It’s a process of growth.
That’s how it is with God’s love and our love for God in response. God loves us long before we were ever conscious of that love, and loves us steadily as our awareness waxes and wanes. But with awareness, with experiences that reveal God’s love and Jesus’ presence with us, then our response matters. What we choose to do and how we choose to live, determines, in large measure, how the relationship will deepen and grow.
There’s a story in the Bible that describes this relationship dynamic really well. It’s from one of the accounts of Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel of St. Luke. It tells of a time, early in Jesus’ ministry, when he was teaching and healing in the villages around a large lake known as the Sea of Galilee, which lies to the north of Jerusalem in Israel/Palestine. People responded to him — the text tells us, people were hungry for the word of God that he spoke. It got to the point that wherever Jesus went large crowds would gather.
One day, Jesus asked two fisherman for their help. Might they let him use one of their boats, so he could go out on the water and speak to the crowd gathered on the shore from there? A fisherman named Simon agreed, even though he had just returned from a long night of fishing having caught nothing. Simon rowed him out, and from the boat Jesus spoke to the crowd.
When Jesus finished, he turned to Simon and said. Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch. Simon, remember, had been out all night. He was exhausted. He was also a professional fisherman, and here was this itinerant preacher telling him how to do his job.
I don’t know if it was what Jesus had been teaching from the boat, or if Simon knew of Jesus from before, or he was simply being compliant. But something inside Simon prompted him to respond. He did mildly protest, pointing out that they had been fishing without success all night. But then he said, If you say so, I’ll let down the nets.
Was it an “if you say so,” out of trust? Of resignation? How many times have I said, “If you say so,” meaning, “You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about, but nonetheless, I’ll do what you say.”
However he said it, Simon did what Jesus asked. And within minutes, there were more fish to catch than his nets could hold.
Then Simon was completely overwhelmed. His first response was one of shame. It wasn’t shame because he had doubted Jesus’ fishing sensibilities. He knew then in a way he hadn’t realized before that he was the presence of someone holy, and he didn’t feel worthy to be there, even in his own boat. Simon was certain that if Jesus knew what kind of man he was, Jesus wouldn’t want anything to do with him. But you see, Jesus did know him. He knew all about him. He didn’t ask Simon for help because he wanted Simon’s boat. He wanted Simon. “Follow me,” he said, “From now on, you and I will be fishing for people.”
What this story suggests is that before Jesus asks us to acknowledge, much less follow him, he’s going to show up in our lives and make his presence known. Of course, it’s different for us than it was for those who knew him when he walked the earth. Now, Jesus comes to us in spirit. Jesus comes through other people, through our thoughts, dreams, events in our lives, even through what we read, listen to, and watch. (C.S. Lewis, who came to faith late in his life, once said that if people don’t want to become Christian, they better be careful of their reading.) The point is, with us, Jesus gets our attention, not only through our physical eyes, but with our inner eye. We hear him not just with our ears, but with our hearts.
The relationship begins with Jesus coming to us, however that happens. Only then is the invitation extended for us to turn toward the one who has first turned toward us.
I can tell you the first time I consciously turned toward Jesus. It’s easy to remember, because for many years growing up, I lived in a religious and spiritual vacuum. I had gone to church as a young child with my mother, but when I moved to live with my father and stepmother, they didn’t attend church, and neither did I. In those years, everything I thought I knew about God, I either picked up from television, this really scary movie called The Exorcist, or what little I remembered from attending Sunday School when I was younger.
Then, when I was around 15, I became friends with a girl who was a Christian. She didn’t talk about Jesus often, but when she did, it was as if she knew him. I got the sense that whoever Jesus was for her, he was kind. That got my attention. One Sunday, she invited me to go church with her. The minister spoke about Jesus’ love, using the image of a door. There’s a door to our heart, he said, and Jesus waits outside for us to invite him in.
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I knew that in my heart I was lonely and often scared. At the end of of his speech, the minister invited those who were ready to invite Jesus into their hearts to come forward and he would pray with them. I made my way to the front. He put his hands on my head–not unlike how I as a bishop place my hands on the heads of those standing for Confirmation–and he prayed. I don’t remember what he said, or feeling all that different when I returned to my seat. But something changed for me that day.
In truth, life remained pretty rocky in those years. I was dealing with a lot in my family and in school. I had a lot to learn about myself, much less Jesus. I was confused because everyone in my friend’s church was happy that I had accepted Jesus, but I wasn’t particularly happy, and I was pretty sure that I hadn’t experienced what they assumed I had. I wondered if I should go forward to receive the minister’s prayer again, but no one thought that was a good idea. As time went on, I bounced around a bit to other churches, and even received Jesus again in another church. For a time, I lived with the minister of that church and his family.
I learned a lot from them, my first church family, and my identity as a Christian slowly took hold. But inside I struggled with some of the church’s teachings. I couldn’t reconcile Jesus’ love with the church’s more rigid beliefs; for example, that only a narrow few–those who believed exactly the way we did–would be saved. I longed for a place to talk about my struggles, but there wasn’t space for that. I wanted to talk about the gap between what we prayed on Sunday mornings and how we actually lived our lives. But here wasn’t room for that either. There was no place for ambiguity or doubt, and I felt a lot of both. I doubted myself a lot, and I doubted God. But then something would happen that got my attention, and I would turn, and there Jesus would be. Right around that time, I had to make one of the scariest decisions of my life, and I had to make it alone. But I didn’t feel alone. I felt Jesus with me.
By the time I was 18, I was back living with my mother and attending the Episcopal Church I went to as a young child and where she was now an active lay leader. I thank God for that church, and for the minister, who took me under his wing and helped me work through all of my questions. I told him I didn’t believe that only a very narrow group of Christians would be saved, whatever being saved meant. He said, “Mariann, a good rule of thumb when thinking about God is to assume if you wouldn’t do something because it isn’t loving or kind, then God–who the source of all love–wouldn’t do it either.” That was so helpful to me, and it remains helpful still. It reminds me of something Presiding Bishop Curry likes to say: “If it’s not about love; it’s not about God.”
In telling you this part of my spiritual story, I hope it’s clear how the decision to turn, follow Jesus and walk in his way of love isn’t a decision we make once. It’s a journey through life that changes and grows as we change and grow. Looking back on that first time I came forward in a church, I see now it was a turning point for me. For I knew then that Jesus was real. The longer I’ve lived, the more I learn about him, and the more experience I have in turning to follow him, the more I know that his way with us, and his way in the world, is the way of love. In my imperfect way, I want to follow him as best I can.
One of the many reason I’m grateful to be part of the Episcopal Church is that every Sunday we’re invited to come forward and invite Jesus into our hearts. Every week, he comes to us in the symbolic last supper with us, his friends. Every week, we can turn toward him and allow his spirit to fill us.
Some people have told me they can’t remember when they first decided to follow Jesus. As far as they can tell, they always have. I think that’s amazing. But for others, as for me, there was a first time that we remember turning and choosing to follow. Some people make that decision after spending a lifetime in church but then realizing that they never really knew him, and thus never really turned their lives toward him. But something happened, and they experienced him, or met him again, or as one book title suggests, they met him again for the first time.
Regardless of how we begin or begin again, before long, we’re all in the same place. Because it’s not, as I’ve said, a turning we make once. Turning to follow Jesus is a daily commitment, and frankly, some days we’re better at it than others. We aren’t always good at this, which is one reason the Way of Love requires practice.
So let’s consider what a daily practice of turning to Jesus might look like.
When we wake up in the morning, what are some of the first things we do? Well, there are physical needs to tend to, so we generally make our way to the bathroom, and then get dressed. We may go immediately then to the kitchen for food or coffee. If there are others to care for in the morning, we must do that. Most of us have morning chores. Some of us like to exercise in the morning.
Let me ask this: How long are you awake before you check your phone? Might I suggest sometime after you wake up and before you check your phone that you turn toward Jesus?
Turning toward Jesus involves finding a bit of time at the beginning of the day to consciously turn your mind, your inward eye, toward him. It’s not that hard. It might involve saying a prayer, a brief mantra, as you get up. When you stretch, or look in the mirror, or take a shower, it can be as simple as remembering that he is there.
I try to do this everyday. I don’t always remember, but whenever I do, I take a breath, thank him for the day, offer whatever I’m feeling or thinking, and ask for his guidance and strength. That way, as I go about my day, if, through an event or in conversation with someone, something gets my attention — even if it feels like an interruption — I have a better chance of noticing his presence. At the end of the day, it’s helpful for me to look and remember what happened and to ask, “Where was he present? Where did I feel his presence, or miss him in the moment because I wasn’t paying attention?”
There’s another dimension of turning toward Jesus that I’d like to mention as I draw this message to a close. It’s when we can turn to him for forgiveness, in those times when we’ve done or said something we regret, and when we feel as if our lives are out of control in ways we cannot fix, and we need his help.
In church, we often talk about Jesus forgiving our sins. What that means, at least in part, is that when we know we’ve said or done something wrong, or we’ve made a mistake with serious consequences and we don’t know how to set things right, we can turn to Jesus. When we ask, he will forgive us, no matter what. More than that, he will help us make amends and start anew walking with us every step of the way. To ask for forgiveness doesn’t allow us to forget, or pretend that what was hurtful or wrong never happened. The gift of it is finding a way out of the pain, a way to make amends and find release us from the burden of what we’ve done.
When life gets rough and it’s not our fault, and we need help — Jesus is there. I mentioned earlier the time as a teenager when I was alone, scared, and needed help. And he was there. No doubt some of you listening are going through hard times now, or there’s someone close to you. Jesus is there for you, for them, for all of us. He doesn’t miraculously make what’s hard go away. What he gives is inner strength and courage. He moves through other people who show up and help us. As is often said, he can make a way out of no way. It’s not an experience that can be easily explained. But I’m here to tell you that it’s real and can be trusted. I’ve been in that spot more times than I can count. And one thing I know — we are not alone. We can turn to Jesus.
Turning is but one of seven practices in the Jesus-focused life. It’s the starting point, when we first make the decision to turn toward the one who has come to us. We turn to him in need of forgiveness and strength. It’s a choice we make everyday, to turn toward him and then to follow where he leads. But remember, as you turn, that he turns to you, first, and to me, in love.
God bless you. Thank you for listening. I’ll hope you come back next week, when we’ll consider another practice in a Jesus-focused life.
Experiencing Jesus Podcast
Join Bishop Mariann on an 8-week journey through the Way of Love series as she reflects on each of this rule of life’s seven facets: Turn, Bless, Pray, Worship, Rest, Learn, and Go. We hope in listening, you will experience Jesus in a new and refreshing way.
Experiencing Jesus with Bishop Mariann is now available on: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Simplecast, Stitcher, CastBox, Overcast, and Spotify.