The angel said to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
One of the great spiritual writers of our time, Richard Rohr, believes that there are at least two major tasks in every human life: the first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or outward identity; the second is to find the contents that the container is meant to hold.
We live in a culture that encourages us to fixate on the parts of ourselves that others can see, what are sometimes called the three A’s: appearance, accomplishments, and what we accumulate. There’s nothing inherently bad with any of these things. We need containers; with care, they can beautifully reflect our true self. But all too often we confuse our containers with what they are meant to hold. I know that I do.
This Sunday we begin Advent, a short season in the Christian calendar intended to help us prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, consider the cosmic implications of our faith, and experience the grace of God making possible what we cannot.
Yet even in the church, most of our Christmas preparations focus on what we might call Christmas containers, all that we do on the outside to make Christmas happen. We need those containers, or at least some of them, or there would be no celebration. But when we confuse our Christmas containers for what the containers are meant to hold, we risk missing the true gifts of this holy time. What a loss, for us and for our world.
That’s one reason why we need Advent. For this is a season of longing. We see the world as it is and long for the world that could be–where families need not flee for their lives, where poverty and war are no more; where no one need grieve the loss of one taken too soon. We see our loved ones struggle and we long to make their lives easier and more joyful, to watch their dreams fulfilled. We consider our lives and long for what we could be, our true selves, free from anxiety, guilt or pain.
So much of what we long for lies beyond our reach. Sometimes we rail against our limitations; others times we live as graciously as we can in that space between our longings and our lives. Yet when we allow those longings to surface, we realize that no matter how hard we try to keep our expectations in check, hope is never far from us.
And thank God for that. Because then we are open to what God alone can do, what God is doing, where God’s grace prevails.
As best you can, then, tend to your heart this Advent. As best you can, seek out a place in this world where Jesus needs you and go to be his hands and feet. As best you can, try to fashion your Christmas container–and that of your life–to Jesus’ way of love. Such an offering would be worthy of the One who comes heralding the amazing truth that nothing is impossible for God.
A curriculum for Advent published by the Presiding Bishop’s office and written by two diocesan clergy, the Rev. Becky Zartman and the Rev. Jenifer Gamber.
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Good morning, St. John’s! It’s wonderful to see good friends I’ve had the privilege of working alongside in my 7 years as bishop and to meet some of you for the first time. It’s a big day today: 21 people will be Confirmed or Received into the Episcopal Church at the 11:00 a.m. service, we’ll offer prayers of dedication for the renovated parish house. Please know how much I admire the wise-beyond-his-years leadership of your associate rector, Andy Olivo, the strong and steady hand of your interim rector, Bruce MacPherson, your gifted staff, committed and faithful lay leaders, and in particular, the vestry and rector search committee. I hold all of you in the highest esteem, you who are living, working, serving faithfully in the places to which you are called. I give thanks to God for all of you.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I hope that you have the opportunity to be with people you love, and in their presence consider the many blessings of your life. It’s always a good practice to take stock of our lives through the lens of gratitude. Practicing gratitude trains our eyes, ears and hearts to receive the gifts of each day and each year that we might otherwise miss. What has happened since last Thanksgiving for which you are truly grateful?
This time last year, I was invited to preach the Thanksgiving homily for the girls at National Cathedral School. I invited them to take up a gratitude experiment (and we wouldn’t tell the St. Albans boys). For the next 30 days, I suggested to them, at the end of each day write down 3 things from the day for which they were grateful. They didn’t have to pretend that they were grateful for things they weren’t, I told them. But even on the hardest days, see if there isn’t something for which to give thanks. At the end of the 30 days, let’s talk about what you’ve learned.
Right before Christmas break, the entire 4th grade class wrote me letters reporting on their experience. Here is a sample of what I received:
I learned that I had more than I thought.
I don’t think I will ever forget when you told us that good things come out of challenges; it’s not wonderful, but good.
I was really inspired to be more grateful, and it worked. I found myself less worried.
I learned that even among hard times you should try to find joy.
You might consider such a gratitude discipline in your household and reflect on what you learn.
Yet the past year, like any year, surely brought some manner of hardship and suffering, to which we are not immune, and for which we need not pretend to be grateful. For some, the hardships have been acute. Indeed, some things that can and do happen in a human life are so searing we never fully recover. If this has been your experience in the past year, or that of someone close to you, I offer my deepest condolence for your loss and pray that you are surrounded by tenderness.
I’ve just finished reading the extraordinary memoir of Dr. Elaine Pagels, whom you may know as the author of some of the most influential, and controversial, books on the history of religion in past 25 years. Among them: The Gnostic Gospels; Adam, Eve, and the Serpent; The Origins of Satan; and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. She is one of my heroes, and thus when I saw that she had at last written a memoir, which she entitled, Why Religion?, I dropped everything to read it. In it, she writes for the first time about her personal suffering, an extended season of grief brought on by the death of her 5 year-old from a rare heart disease followed within a year of the accidental death of her husband.
In that devastating time, Pagels was overwhelmed not only by grief, but also with guilt, as if she were somehow responsible for their deaths. “Shaken by emotional storms,” she writes, “I realized that choosing to feel guilt, however painful, seemed to offer reassurance that such events did not happen at random. . . If guilt is the price we pay for the illusion that we have some control over nature, many of us are willing to pay it. I was. To release the weight of guilt, I had to let go of whatever illusion of control it pretended to offer, and acknowledge that pain and death are as natural as birth, woven inseparably into our human nature.” (Elaine Pagels, Why Religion: A Personal Story (HarperCollins, 2018).)
Let me say that again: Pain and death are as natural as birth, woven inseparably into our human nature.
The gospel text for this morning comes from a part of Jesus’ ministry when he becomes sober, even grim, about prospects for the future—not exactly a place to turn for gratitude or consolation. It’s a foreboding word he speaks to us about buildings falling, wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes and famines, a biblical tour of all the terrible things than can happen and do happen and are, in fact, happening in our world.
“Why do disasters still shock and surprise us?” Pagels asks, ever the scholar, even as she plumbs her own pain. She points out that our Judeo-Christian worldview is rooted in a vision of God who is all good, and who created, as stated in the Book of Genesis, “a very good world.” If so, what happened to this good world? “While the Buddha declared as his first noble truth that ‘all life is suffering’,” she writes, “Jewish and Christian theologians, on the contrary speak of ‘the problem of suffering’ as if suffering and death were not intrinsic elements of nature but alien intruders on an originally perfect creation.”
That insight alone made me wonder how much our response to our suffering determines what happens next, which is another way of asking what we are to do with the pain of loss. There’s little to be gained by running from it, though we can’t be blamed for trying. If we aren’t experiencing suffering ourselves, our understandable tendency is to imagine that we are somehow immune, until that bubble bursts. Sometimes the pain is so great that we are completely done in, at least for a time. But what happens when we realize that we’re still here, still alive, at least for now? How can we dare to breathe deeply again, accept what we cannot change, and learn what it has to teach us?
Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist writer whose books are worth having around you for the titles alone. Among my favorites: When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, When Pain is the Doorway, and The Wisdom of No Escape.
“There’s a common misunderstanding among all human beings,” Chödrön writes in The Wisdom of No Escape:
that the best way to live is to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. But a much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we’re committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.” (Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape (Boston: Shambhala, 2001).)
In The Places That Scare You , Chödrön writes:
There is only one approach to suffering of lasting benefit, and that approach involves moving toward painful situations, to the best of our ability, with friendliness and curiosity, relaxing into the essential groundlessness of our situation. There, in the midst of chaos, we can discover the truth and love that are indestructible. (Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You (Boston: Shambhala, 2002).)
Jesus, sounding very Buddha-like himself, at the end of the passage we have before us, took this line of thinking one step further: “In suffering, you will experience the beginnings of birth pangs.”
Birth pangs as a metaphor for suffering? Now that’s something that women who have given birth can speak about with some authority.
The first birth pangs, as any one of us will tell you, are meant to get your attention. You don’t do anything with those first pangs—the baby is a long time coming. When the first pangs come, about the only thing you can do is pay attention, practice breathing, and wait for the next one, which you know will be more painful than the first.
As it turns out, paying attention requires all your energy. There is no running away. Breathing—something we take for granted most of the time—becomes essential. So does getting ready. Location matters. Who is with you matters. You don’t need a lot of the stuff we normally clutter our lives with, but you need a few essentials, and a good back up plan.
The message of this sermon is this: When pain and suffering comes, as they will, allow the full range of emotions to wash over you. When the sky comes crashing down and you have no choice but to face how scared, sad or angry you feel, you needn’t pretend that it isn’t a catastrophe. But, in time, should a doorway open for you, remember Jesus’ words about birth pangs, and about life after death. Because if you’re open to such a possibility and paying attention to the pain with as much curiosity as you can muster, you’ll be far more likely to receive what it can teach you and embrace the life that awaits on the other side.
My sense is that in unsettled times, be they personal, for us as a community, or for all of us as a nation and a species, we are always tempted to avoid the real suffering we must live through by hanging onto to other forms of suffering that are not, in the end, redemptive. Jesus speaks words of warning about “false messiahs.” I think his words can also apply to what might be “false suffering,” suffering that is real, but leads us nowhere. Guilt can be a form of false suffering. So can the many treadmills of anxiety that we freely climb on, spinning us round and round, when the real task before us is to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and see what lies on the other side.
A few years ago I attended a workshop with the wonderful Benedictine nun Joan Chittister. She spoke to us to of God, not as One who does things for us or to us, but instead as the One who walks with us, as an encouraging, beckoning presence. God is not a vending machine, she said, or a “Gotcha God,” waiting for us to fall short in order to punish us. God is the One who is always at our side.
One woman raised her hand to ask the question that we all ask at one time or another: “But how can we believe in such a God when there is so much suffering?” Joan looked straight at her with the deepest compassion and responded, “My dear, suffering is life. It’s simply life, the cost of life. It isn’t God’s fault. It isn’t your fault. It’s life. And life, while the greatest of gifts, can be hard. It can break our hearts, and often does. But my dear, God is with you. God is for you. God is your best friend. Never forget that.”
I leave you this day with what I hear in Jesus’ difficult words to us, words we may wish were not part of our Bibles, but in the end thank God that they are: be of good courage in the harder times. We never know when we might be called upon to do the hardest thing, what we fear most, or what catches us by surprise. But we can prepare for those times by how we live now—what we listen for, how we speak to one another and pay attention to the presence of God.
I don’t know that we ever become grateful for the hard things that happen to us, but I do know the gratitude for having come through them, gratitude, sometimes, for the person we become as a result of our hardship, gratitude that out of death something new can be born.
And so, St. John’s, Lafayette Square, continue being the church—the community—where you and others can grow in faith and love, give voice to your greatest aspirations; where you come to grieve and celebrate, and gather around the sacred stories and teachings of the Christian life. Together you can choose to face the realities of life with an open heart and a willingness to trust that no matter what happens, God is with you. Whatever hardship you are facing now, this is, Jesus says, but the beginning of the birth pangs. His life, death, and resurrection, his abiding presence with us, is God’s response to our suffering, with the most powerful promise of all: that there is life on the other side. For that, may we all give thanks.
The word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.
2 Corinthians 4:1
“I am among you as one who serves.”
Yesterday, as is our custom in the Diocese of Washington, I spent several hours with the four to be ordained and their spiritual mentor through the ordination process, the Rev. Robert Phillips. We met in our home, and after all of you had left, my husband said to me: “That has to be one of the best parts of your job.” And of course it is.
I hope you know what a privilege it is, not only for me, but for all of us to journey with you on the path of your discernment, education, and formation for ordained life. You are a blessing. Each one of you brings a particular richness of spiritual maturity and youthful exuberance, a joy for life and compassion born of the particular suffering that has marked you. As the wise Jewish doctor Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us all, “It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our experience of suffering that makes us able to heal. . . Expertise cures, but wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people. For the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise.” (Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom–Stories that Heal (Riverhead Books, 1996).)
You also bring to ordained life the experience of vocation in other realms, which gives you an appreciation for the breadth of call. You know that the experience, while distinct for those called to this peculiar path, is not unique. It was Walter Brueggemann who said that the great heresy of our time is the notion that’s possible, even desirable to live an uncalled life, with no other reference point than itself. (Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Voices in Exile (Fortress Press, 1996).) You know that for the empty lie that it is. You know both the gift and the cost of a called life, a summoned life, which is the God-given potential for every human being.
When call is denied or ignored, we are diminished, stunted in our humanity. In its societal, collective expressions, the uncalled life is a manifestation of evil, as people are consigned to live lives too small for them, as cogs in the machinery of consumption or war, or as those easily thrown away, trapped in prisons of poverty and injustice. In the realm of personal choice, the uncalled life is among the greatest of self-imposed human tragedies.
You have been called to this life, among the ordained in this particular institutional expression of Christianity. For this, the first of two ordinations on your path to priesthood, I’d like to speak to you about the inner terrain of this particular call. I don’t believe that anything I have learned is necessarily unique to this call, but that is for others, called to labor in other vineyards, to determine.
The first emotion to name is gratitude.
I asked each of the four yesterday to identify the moment when they were, at last, confident that this day would come, that they would, in fact, be ordained. As each spoke, the gratitude in the room was palpable. There’s almost always a companion response of disbelief, as it feels too good to be true. You are called to this, and it’s amazing because it’s not about how marvelous you are–although, as the poem I asked you to read yesterday boldly states, “you are more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach.” (“Santiago,” by David Whyte. Pilgrim @2012 Many Rivers Press) That’s true about you, but so is everything else–the whole catastrophe of your existence. All of it is swept up into this call. That’s the amazing part, and how could we not respond to God in gratitude?
Now I know that sometimes we clergy speak of our call as something we resisted for years, said no to for years, and then finally acquiesced to, sounding a bit as if we were doing God and the church a favor by saying yes. But I’ve never been persuaded by that narrative, and whenever I hear people talk that way in the early stages of the discernment process, I discourage them from going forward. Honestly, you need to want this life in order to thrive in it. In the years when I was newly ordained, serving full time in a parish and raising two young sons, I remember thinking “I would not wish my life on anyone else. But nor would I trade it for anyone else’s.” Even the hardest moments, there is gratitude for the call. And when we forget that, and catch ourselves whining about how hard the work is, it’s best to step back and ask what else is going on.
In my first year in seminary, we had a visiting Church History professor who stepped in for one of the VTS faculty on sabbatical. He said something that I’ve never forgotten–not about Church History, but the nature of this vocation: “If you find yourselves complaining about how hard this work is, especially during Holy Week, or at Christmas, or other intense seasons in the church’s life, perhaps this is not your call.” “Never complain to your people about how hard you work,” he said to us. Which doesn’t mean you can’t complain to anybody, mind you. We all need places to release tensions and to vent. But not to those whose work is actually much harder than ours and who give countless hours apart from what they do to earn their daily bread, sacrificially, in service to Christ through the church.
Gratitude for this call, then, gratitude for the experience of call, is fundamental. And, as I’ve indicated, it’s important because of how hard the work can be, and even how hard it can be to find a place of work that also sustains our daily living.
Thus another dimension of the inner dimension of this terrain is heartache.
This call will break your heart. There’s no avoiding it. First of all, count on making a lot of mistakes, some of them quite spectacular. You will break your own heart in the ways you fail. Moreover, the church is filled with human beings–imperfect, broken, sinful human beings, just like you. They, too, will break your heart. To complicate things further, no matter where your vocational path takes you, this is a challenging time to be a Christian leader, and the challenges in the Episcopal Church are real. It’s helpful to know in advance, I suppose, that your heart will be broken, but in my experience advance knowledge doesn’t really buffer the impact when it happens. That’s one reason why we all need support systems. There is no shame in asking for help. Nor is a broken heart the end of the world–in fact, as I said earlier, you broken heart will help heal other broken hearts.
Yet another dimension of the inner terrain of this call is the need to cultivate resilience, and persistence, or what some in leadership circles are referring to nowadays as “grit.”
At the heart of this call is leadership. We are called to lead a certain group of people, be it a congregation, a student body, a family within a congregation, a group of colleagues, or a diocese. We are called to lead others from where we are now, as a body, to where God is calling us, toward a preferred future or a necessary sacrifice. That process, by definition, invokes resistance. Resistance, let me hasten to say, is not all bad; nor is all change good. As a result, those of us called to lead have no choice but to live and move and have our being in what I heard one leader recently describe as “the messy middle,” that place where nothing is clear, where what you thought was a God-inspired idea goes nowhere, where those who called you to lead them are now resisting you with everything they’ve got, and it occurs to you that working as a barista in your neighborhood coffee shop seems like a more fruitful place for ministry than the church.
The last dimension of the inner terrain of this call I’ll mention today is the capacity to dream.
This is the gift of hope, that often initially expresses itself in a vision for what the church could be, is called to be, and a deep desire in us to be there, in that hopeful place. I often tease clergy when they describe the church they would like to serve: you know, that healthy, multi-cultural congregation, with enough resources to afford a staff, ready to take risks, isn’t burdened by the weight and responsibilities of a building, and with lots of kids. I say, sure, we all want that church. Perhaps your call and mine is to bring hope and vision for that kind of church to the place where most of our churches are now and lead accordingly.
For without such a dream, where would we be? God places God-sized dreams in the heart of leaders for a reason. They are to be cherished, cultivated, and worked toward, in full acceptance the journey toward their fulfillment is long, that we may not see the fruits of our labor in our lifetimes.
Those dreams also ask for our best efforts. Do not expect this work to be easy. But not only is it worth giving your life to a God-given dream, if you are, in fact, called to this vocation, as we believe that you are, you will find your greatest joy in its fulfillment, and even in failure. For as Marian Wright Edelman once said, “It’s better to fail in the work that matters than to succeed in mediocrity.” But when things get hard, promise me that you will ask for help. We aren’t meant to do this work alone.
In closing, I confess that I am not a bishop who can speak to you from personal experience of a balanced life. I have never known balance, as much as my heart craves it. I can speak to you of the joy, gratitude, heartbreak, necessary resilience, dreams of a called life. And of a relationship with Christ that is deeply personal, sustaining, and yes, as St. Paul tells us over and over again, the way of the cross.
Please take care of yourselves. You are among the generation of clergy coming into your own under the inspired leadership of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Take his teachings to heart. Live in your lives according to The Way of Love. Live into the practices of a Jesus-focused life before you speak of them. But then live your call, and speak, teach, love, and lead.
Thank you for saying yes,
Thus says the Lord: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
At last May’s clergy conference, Tony Morgan, founder of The Unstuck Church Group spoke to us of holy interruptions. When working with churches, he said, he prays for holy interruptions, something that catches our attention, challenges us to pause and assess, and then create a plan to respond. We don’t drift into greater health, he said. We must actively choose it.
I confess that “holy interruption” was not my initial understanding of Canon Paul Cooney’s discernment that it was time to bring his EDOW ministry to an close. But as I continue to pray, for him and for all of us, that phrase–holy interruption–keeps coming back to me. Prior to Paul’s announcement, I sensed that this was a pivotal time in our common life. It is all the more so now.
As we make our way in the coming weeks, a few things are immediately clear:
Given that Paul Cooney has served as Canon to the Ordinary for 17 years, his ministry portfolio is uniquely tailored to his particular skills and capacities. By necessity, the Canon to the Ordinary position will be different going forward.
Thus this is truly a time of interruption and assessment. I’m working with diocesan leaders and staff to discern how best to ensure that key responsibilities currently residing in the Canon to the Ordinary’s portfolio are not neglected. We’re taking stock of all staff responsibilities, to consider new configurations among existing staff before identifying new positions. Given the magnitude of this task alongside preparing for a diocesan-wide strategic planning process, we’re seeking external guidance and support.
Please join me in prayer that God will continue to guide us in a thoughtful, collaborative journey toward God’s preferred future for all who call the Episcopal Church their spiritual home, and for all who might come to know, love and serve Christ because of our faithfulness.
It strikes me that what makes an interruption holy has less to do with how it came about and more with our response to it. St. Paul reminds us that “all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) May we all remain open to the Holy Spirit’s living presence in and among us, so that this interruption may result in a renewed season of faithful and fruitful ministry.
On a related note, Holy Interruption is the theme for Diocesan Convention in January. Together, we’ll celebrate Paul Cooney’s ministry and pray God’s blessings upon him. And we’ve invited Tony Morgan back to the diocese for a pre-convention event on Friday evening, January 25th. Tony will speak of the core principles of church renewal as outlined in The Unstuck Church and we’ll hear from EDOW congregations already putting those principles into practice. We will share registration information soon. You need not be a Convention delegate to attend Friday night’s session. All vestry members and other congregational leaders are welcome!
Moses said to the people of Israel, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! I’m happy to be with you on to the Feast of St. Andrew, an occasion for bagpipes, Confirmation, and the celebration of your life as the blessed, gifted Christian community that you are.
Today is a special treat for me; it’s rare in my oversight of 88 congregations that I’m able to worship with the same congregation twice in one year. But I was here in January when we celebrated St. Andrew’s new season of ministry with Tim as your rector. So today, among other things, we have the opportunity to reflect on your experience of the past year.
The 19th century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson used to ask friends he hadn’t seen for a while, “What has become clear to you since last we met?” In that same spirit, I ask, what has become clear to you, St. Andrew’s Church, since last we worshipped together? Where have you sensed the Holy Spirit’s presence? Where are you experiencing a renewed or emerging sense of vocation, individually and as a congregation? Some among the congregation today have come to St. Andrew’s in the past year, and your presence is surely part of the Holy Spirit’s stirring in this place. God has brought you here for a reason.
If you are new, perhaps you wonder why there are bagpipes this morning, on St. Andrew’s Day. That’s because–who knows the answer?–St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland. Okay, but the real question is how on earth did Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter and one of Jesus’ first disciples, become the patron saint of Scotland?
There is no dispute in the biblical account about Andrew’s identity: He was brother to Simon Peter, the most famous of Jesus’ disciples. After Jesus, Simon Peter is mentioned by name more than any other person in the four gospel accounts.
In some traditions, when Andrew is mentioned at all, it’s simply that he was at Simon Peter’s side. He was content, it seems, to follow in his more famous brother’s footsteps. But in one version of their story, it was Andrew who first became a disciple of John the Baptist, and then, at John’s instruction, a follower of Jesus. It was Andrew who told Simon about Jesus, saying, “We have found the Messiah!”
After Jesus’ resurrection, tradition has it that Andrew became a missionary to regions around the Black Sea, which helps explain why he is also the patron saint of Russia. He’s thought to have died there, in a season of persecution, never getting even close to Scotland. Only centuries later were relics of his physical remains brought to Scotland, during an era when preserving such relics was a form of devotion. The cathedral in which they were housed in Scotland became a pilgrimage destination in Middle Ages, not unlike Santiago de Compostela, which houses the relics of St. James, is the destination of the still famous Camino de Compostela in Spain. Andrew’s relics, however, were destroyed in the religious wars the Scottish Reformation. But his association with Scottish culture did not die. St. Andrew’s Day is as big a day for national celebration in Scotland as St. Patrick’s Day is in Ireland.
According to the internet, which we know is always accurate, Andrew is also the patron saint of fishermen, single women, and soon-to-be parents. Go figure.
I like to think St. Andrew as the patron saint people who are the siblings or good friends of someone more popular than they are. Andrew is to Simon Peter as Ron Weasley is Harry Potter–the one always at his side. Yet Ron has a story of his own, doesn’t he? As the story of Harry unfolds, so does Ron’s, and we see him grow into the person he was created to be, with a destiny all his own.
You may have heard that Matthew Shepard’s physical remains were interred at Washington National Cathedral a few weeks ago, bringing closure to a twenty-year old wound that his horrific death left on his family and the nation. Matthew’s parents went on to become passionate champions for LGBTQ inclusion and to fight for anti-hate crime legislation. But Matthew was also Logan Shepard’s older brother. It was Logan, with his fiancee by his side, who placed Matthew’s ashes in the crypt. As we were saying goodbye, I felt called to bless him. “It’s so important, Logan, for you to live your life,” I told him. “Yes, you are Matt’s brother. But you are first and foremost Logan Shepard, a beloved child of God.”
In the time remaining, I’d like to speak to you about this process of coming into our own–the experience of determining the arc and direction of our own lives. Of course, it’s possible to live, and we often do, as if our existence were merely a succession of days. We sometimes speak of days, weeks, seasons as time we have to simply get through, or get past: We talk that way: “I can’t wait to get through the week,” we’ll say, or “get through the fall, with all its demands. We speak of surviving the holidays, or our twenties, and so on.
“Getting through” is a real experience; I don’t mean to minimize it. But there is another dimension to life, if we’re open to it. It’s one of movement toward something, a sense of our life’s greater purpose or vocation. That sense of direction, or purpose, can help sort through and make daily decisions that have a larger consequence to them, for they either move us in the direction of that purpose or away from it.
There are times when that clarity comes to us like a thunderbolt: from the gospel text we’re given a picture of Simon and Andrew dropping everything to follow Jesus, no questions asked. And there are times when we simply know something to be true without knowing how we know; we just do. The earlier passage we read today from the Book of Deuteronomy speaks to this kind of innate clarity, when the word of truth is as close as our own breath. We don’t need to argue with anyone about it; we don’t need to prove anything; we just know. This kind of knowledge is particularly powerful when it stands in contrast to what others believe to be true. Then we must live with the dissonance and even social isolation as a consequence of what we know. If our knowledge is of God, or of revealed truth that others do not as yet see, then we must take our place in the long, slow process of social change.
But that kind of clarity is, in my experience, relatively rare. Clarity, which is the recognition of truth that provides a sense of direction, generally doesn’t come to us all at once, in a whole piece. More often it comes gradually, over time. Our capacity to receive truth also grows in time. We grow and truth grows in us incrementally.
In the Christian life, as in any other, there are many places to go for needed perspective and insight in the service of clarity. My focus this morning is that place inside where God can speak, as the Scripture says, in a still, small voice; a place where we can ponder, that is, to reflect on the meaning of things, to interpret the signs, signals, and invitations that come to us, and then choose from among many options in the work of crafting, or composing our lives. (Phrase taken from the book by Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Life (New York: Grove Press, 1989).) Without such internal effort to ponder, interpret, and make thoughtful choices, we put ourselves in the hands of all the forces that seek to define us from the outside. Then we are tossed to and fro, as St. Paul wrote, and blown about by every wind. Without an inner compass, we are more likely to say no out of fear or yes out of compulsion to every invitation that comes our way.
As with all practices, this one of inner listening is not uniquely Christian. All spiritual traditions uphold practices of prayer, meditation, and discernment. Those who study the lives of great leaders, both past and present, point to a core of inner strength common to all those who are neither claimed by chaos around them nor satisfied with mediocrity that most settle for; who are unafraid to be themselves, yet willing to be more than themselves. The poet and author David Whyte speaks of awakening the “inner captain,” that internal source of authority and clarity, especially needed when we attempt something difficult. (David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001), 45.)
What distinguishes this inner work for Christians is the intentional invitation to God and expectation that God will address us internally if we make space to listen. It’s not as easy as it may sound, but it’s also not as difficult as we make it to be. What God needs and what we need is a bit time and space for pondering; what God needs and what we need is our openness to the unexpected insight that comes seemingly from nowhere and a willingness to trust that insight may be of God. As Christians, we are continually being called to be more than we have been, and trust what we hear inside and risk stepping out in faith.
One might simply call the inner life of a Christian “prayer,” but if so, the kind of prayer I’m speaking of is quite particular. It is, if you will, interpretive prayer, the inner conversation we have to bring meaning to events or circumstances, and also discerning prayer, the process we go through to help us decide what to do in response to an event or circumstance or invitation.
The Christian writer Urban Holmes defines discernment this way: “the ability to intuit God’s will by casting a particular question the Christian faces in a given situation before the judgment of the deeper self. The result of discernment will be a willingness to risk decisions and take actions whose surety is enigmatic at best.” (Source unknown. This quote comes from a colleague, Bishop Andrew Waldo, whom I heard quote Urban Holmes in a presentation on discernment.) The result of this kind of discernment, in other words, is a greater capacity to act in the face of uncertainty, a willingness to risk failure in the service of what matters most.
So how do we go about this discerning, interpretive task? What do we do when we’re pondering?
We can do many things. For some, the work is quiet and still, a daily practice of sitting and paying attention to all that comes into consciousness. For others, to ponder requires movement—a walk or a run, anything that engages both body and mind. I read a history of Franklin Delano Roosevelt a few years back, and I learned that when he had a momentous decision before him, he would get sick and take to his bed. President Obama used to play basketball.
I am one of those who “putters” as I ponder. It doesn’t really matter what I do, but I need to be active and quiet at the same time, to allow my brain to sort things out and be open to the voice of God. I also often write my way to clarity, which is, if you saw my first, second, third, and fiftieth versions of my writing, a long and messy process.
I don’t mean to imply that other people aren’t helpful in the discerning process, for they are. Hearing ourselves speak the issues we’re carrying can be clarifying, as can hearing the perspectives of others. In the end, though, there is something solitary about this process, as we claim the path we will take as ours.
One of the more helpful practices of pondering that I have been taught is described in a small book entitled, Sleeping With Bread. (Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1995).) The book’s title comes from a story told about children left orphaned and starving during the Second World War. When at last they were given food in refugee camps, they couldn’t trust that there would be more later on, so they ate themselves sick at every meal. Their caregivers’ solution was to give the children a loaf of bread as they went to bed. They could sleep, then, with confidence that there would be food for them in the morning. Inspired by the children holding their loaves of bread, the authors describe a simple practice of holding onto what gives us life, especially in times of uncertainty and transition.
The practice, which originated with St. Ignatius of Loyola, is this: at the end of each day take a few moments to reflect, asking two questions: For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment am I least grateful? There are many ways to ask the same questions: When did I feel the most alive today? When did I feel life draining out of me? When did I give and receive the most love? When did I give and receive the least? This practice, exercised over time, heightens our awareness of moments we might have otherwise passed by as insignificant, moments that can ultimately give direction for our lives. It helps to write our reflections down, a few sentences each day, so that we might watch for patterns at they emerge over time.
When at a particular crossroad, or when striving to discern a particular path, when the ground beneath us shifts, a simple practice of reflection of what gives us life and what takes life away from us, can serve as a source of guidance and consolation. For the spiritual assumption behind this practice is that God’s desire for us is greater life, not less. And should we discern that a costly, difficult road is ours to take, we can do so equipped with a greater reservoir of what sustains us in lean times.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I believe it’s possible through these practices to receive complete clarity about how we are to make our way in this life. I don’t believe that, and I have never myself attained it. But I tell you, a little bit of clarity goes a long way. A little bit goes a long way in helping us sift through the endless demands and focus on what matters most; a little bit goes a long way in helping us say no to the many worthwhile tasks in order to say yes to the few tasks we are called to; a little bit of clarity helps us to let go of what is no longer compatible with our lives and reach for what our heart desires, because at last we know something about it. And if by grace, we are invited to do something truly amazing for the world, we will have the capacity and spiritual strength to say yes. More than that–this inner journey also helps us live comfortably and joyfully in our own skin and claim the path, and the life, that is uniquely ours.
In closing, I simply encourage you to name for yourself what helps you listen for God’s voice and the wisdom of your deeper self, and then to give that process, whatever it is, the space that it deserves. Protect it as best you can. To those being confirmed in the faith or received into the Episcopal Church, hear this as part of my charge to you for this next phase in your spiritual journey, that you claim and protect the ways you sense God’s voice or guiding presence.
What I say to you as individuals, I also say to you as a congregation. For collectively you are also on a path of vocational discernment, which is not the same thing as being busy, doing good things for God. This is holy work, as you claim your unique identity and purpose as Christian community.
May I pray with you?
Gracious God, I hold before you this day each beloved child of yours gathered together in this place. I ask your blessing and guidance, so that all may grow in confidence in your love for them and clarity in their life’s purpose. I pray for the congregation of St. Andrew’s, that as a community they may discern your unique gifts and particular witness that is theirs in this place. All this I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.