The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focused Life – To Learn

by | Sep 23, 2018

 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.

Hebrews 4:12-16

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.