The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’
A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live. But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Hello, this is Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Welcome back to this podcast series, The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focused Life. Together we’re exploring in-depth what it means to follow a rule of life, which is an intentional commitment on our part to adopt certain practices in order to open ourselves to receive Jesus’ love for us and to grow in our capacity to love others as he loves. There are seven practices in the Way of Love: to turn, to learn and to pray; to worship; to bless, to go, and to rest. Today’s focus is the sixth of the seven practices, to go.
“Go where, exactly?” we might ask.
The simple answer: “Wherever God tells us to go.”
“But how can we know where God is telling us to go?”
That’s not always an easy question to answer.
Thomas Merton, one of the wisest Christian writers of the 20th century, dedicated his entire life to listening to God and helping others do the same. He once wrote a prayer on this state of not knowing, and in particular, the dangerous terrain religious people can get ourselves into whenever we think we do know: “O Lord God,” Merton’s prayer begins,
I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, And that fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. (Thomas Merton, Pax Christi, Benet Press, Erie, PA.)
There is no shortage of tragic stories about people–often sincerely religious people–doing great harm while convinced they were responding to God’s call. Too much certainty in our ability to discern God’s call and thinking that we know without a shadow of a doubt where God is calling us to go can be dangerous. More often than not, this process of listening for the call and responding by saying, Yes, I will go takes time. There is often great uncertainty along the way, as we take one step, and then another, making course corrections as we go.
Yet sometimes I think we know exactly where God wants us to go, but we pretend that we don’t. We pretend, or we ignore, or we do anything to avoid where we’re being asked to go because, for a variety of reasons, we simply don’t want to go there. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that No is always our response to God’s call for us to go somewhere specific, but it’s often our first response.
There’s a great story in the Bible–pure fiction, by the way, but true nonetheless–about a man who, in response to the first time God asked him to go somewhere ran as far as he could in the opposite direction. His name was Jonah, and in the book that bears his name, we learn that God wants Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh to preach a word of judgement, for the citizens of Nineveh have sinned greatly and God is not pleased. But Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, because he doesn’t like the people there and it pleases him to think of them being punished for their misdeeds.
So to avoid God’s call, Jonah runs away, eventually stowing himself on a boat that’s going off to sea. A storm arises that causes the boat’s crew to panic and they throw Jonah overboard. You may recall that Jonah then finds himself in the belly of a large fish, where he remains for three days. That’s long enough for him to realize that going wherever God asks him to go, however unpleasant, was better than remaining where he was. So he cries out to God, God hears him, and at God’s command, the fish spits Jonah out.
Then, as the text says, “the Lord comes to Jonah a second time.” This time, when God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah says yes. He goes and warns the people of Nineveh that they face God’s judgment if they do not change their sinful ways. Just as Jonah feared, the people of Nineveh listen to him and begin the painful process of amending their lives. God, in turn, has mercy on them which irritates Jonah to no end. But despite his initial reluctance and bad attitude, Jonah went where God told him go. As a result, the people were spared.
The moral of the story: When God tells us to go somewhere, yes is a better answer than no, but getting to yes isn’t always easy.
Saying no to God doesn’t mean we’re bad people, and it’s understandable for us to resist a call to go somewhere that seems risky or dangerous, or less nobly on our part, merely inconvenient. Most of us want to maintain control of our lives, or at least the illusion of control. We’ll decide, thank you very much, where we will go and not go.
Sometimes we say not because we don’t want to, but because what God is asking is too much for us. We know where we’re supposed to go, but we just can’t just go there–at least not yet, and not on our own strength. There’s a story in one of the gospels of a rich young man who approached Jesus, asking him for guidance. Jesus immediately took a liking to this young man and invited him to sell all that he had and join the band of disciples. The young man couldn’t do it. He went away heartbroken, and Jesus’ heart broke a little, too. “How difficult it is,” he said, “for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
But I have the sense that God isn’t surprised when at first, or for a long time, we say no, that we won’t go where God asks us to go. God knows that what He’s asking of us is hard, and may well be beyond our capacity. Of course we say no at first. Think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knew where the path of faithfulness was taking him, but he didn’t want to go there. “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” he prayed. We want the cup to pass from us, sometimes.
Jesus went on to pray perhaps the hardest, most courageous, and yes, submissive prayer of all: “But not my will; thy will be done.” He submitted his will to God’s will. What will our prayer be in that moment when we sense the call to go to places we would give anything to avoid? Jesus invites us to stay in relationship with God, stay in the conversation, to bring our concerns and fear and protests to God in prayer. Remember Jonah, arguably the most reluctant prophet in all the Bible. Even in the belly of the fish, he stayed in the conversation with God, no wasn’t his final answer. It needn’t be ours, either.
So how does God help us move from no to yes?
Looking back on my life, there have been times when it seems as if God planted a seed of possibility for my future by asking me to go somewhere well before I could possibly say yes. Even in the times I tried to go, I failed at first, and as a result learned important lessons in my failures that prepared me for the the next time I heard the call to go. This is also a dynamic that we can see at work in those close to us. I have watched friends and family members wrestle with an emerging sense of call, going back and forth, categorically saying no, or trying and failing, then experience the same call surface again. One poet described this process as being pursued by the “hound of heaven,” (“The Hound of Heaven,” by Francis Thompson. The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse. Nicholson & Lee, eds.) and it can feel like that, until at last we’re ready to take the risk and say yes and have the inner capacity.
Another way that God coaxes us along from no to yes is through the example other people, and in particular, the people who inspire us. They inspire us, I think, precisely because they have crossed the threshold that could be our destiny. We see in them some unrealized potential in us, and we want to be where they are. We want to be like them, and part of us may even long to be them, which we can’t. We can only be ourselves. But what we see in them inspires us to go where they have led the way.
In my early 20s, I was befriended by a wonderful group of young adults in their 30s. I was a single and a senior in college; they were in the throes of early marriage and family life. We were all part of a small Christian community with a passionate commitment to serve homeless people in our city. I so admired my older friends, and I wanted nothing more than to be where they were in life. They were more than happy to adopt me into their tribe as a sweet younger sibling. I eventually realized, however, that I couldn’t leapfrog over my 20s and land where they were. I had to walk that road myself, which, in time, meant leaving my friends and the city where I attended college to find my own way through that turbulent, formative decade. Leaving the warmth of their community and the identity I so wanted to have among them was hard. But it was their that example inspired me to go.
Jesus was a master at using inspiring examples as an encouragement to those around him. He told what is arguably his most famous parable in part to inspire a young lawyer to live according to the highest aspirations of love found in the Torah, or teachings of Scripture.
You may recall that the lawyer approached Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus knew the lawyer already knew the answer to his own question, and so he asked him to recite the most foundational spiritual requirement found in the Torah: You shall the love the Lord your God will all your heart, mind, soul and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” “That’s right,” Jesus replied. “Do that and you will live.”
But the lawyer pressed further, wanting Jesus to tell him exactly which neighbor he was required to love, presumably so that he wouldn’t waste his energies loving the wrong people. That’s when Jesus responds with the story we know as the Good Samaritan, in which a man is beaten and left for dead on the side of road. Three men encounter him on the road; two pass him by, and one stops to help. The two passersby, to make the point even clearer, were righteous men in the eyes of the law. The man who stopped to help was of a despised race. Then Jesus asks the lawyer which of the three men who inspired him with his love for neighbor. When the lawyer answers, “the man who showed compassion.” Jesus simply said, “Go and do likewise.”
Who inspires you? What would it look like for you to follow their example? Even if it seems impossible to be where they are, could it be that they are your guiding light, directing you through their inspiration where God is calling you to go?
This power of inspiration is not only at work in us individually, but also in community. I often ask church leaders that are trying to discern future direction, “Is there a church nearby that is doing what you wish your church could do, reaching the people you wish you could reach? If so, be inspired by their example, and learn from them. Then, in your own way, as Jesus said, ‘Go and do likewise.’”
Now I want to make a shift here, because there is another way we can experience God’s call to go somewhere, completely different from that of resistance or struggle. These are the times when we sense God is calling us to places where we ourselves most want to go, that God is guiding us toward our heart’s greatest desire.
There’s a lot in the spiritual life that asks us to accept what we cannot change and bravely set our faces toward the places that most scare us, but there is also the experience of joy, of being led to places that are where we know we’re supposed to be.
The path of joy, of heart’s desire, is real. God gave us our desires for a reason, to help guide us in life. Sometimes we’re prevented from fulfilling those desires, for reasons that are beyond our understanding or control, but when the path opens to us, we are meant to take it, to go there, to follow, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “the voice of our own gladness.” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABCs (1993).)
I’ll never forget the time when a colleague said to me, as he poised to make a dramatic change in his vocation: “I have been preparing my whole life for this moment.” He was, I would guess, in his mid-50s. I was in my early 30s. So, of course, he seemed ancient to me at the time, in the sense that I couldn’t imagine myself being at his stage in life. I was also in complete awe. While I had no idea what my equivalent place would be, I knew that I wanted to be able to say the same thing someday. “I’ve been preparing my whole life for this.” It’s important to know our heart’s desire, to dig down deep for it, to discern how the strands of our life weave together into a tapestry of fulfillment. That deep desire is of God, and should the opportunity come for us to go where that desire leads, we need to be ready to say yes, without reservation, having prepared ourselves for that moment.
One final dimension of going to consider here: the times we are called to go, and yet stay where we are. In other words, God may be calling us to a new place, spiritually, relationally, vocationally yet ask us to remain in place. This is the call to depth and to maturity. In the wise words of the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, “It may be the neighborhood we live in rather than the neighborhood we want that will really make human beings of us. It may be the job we have rather than the position we are selling our souls to get that may finally liberate us from ourselves.” (Joan Chittister, O.S.B, The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages (New York: Crossroad Press, 2004).) Or in the words of pastor Mark Batterson, “If Jesus isn’t calling you out on the water, stay in the boat.” (Transcript from a podcast conversation with Carey Nieuwhof)
However we sense God’s call to go–to places that frighten or inspire us; to places we would choose gladly or do anything to avoid; to travel across boundaries or to stay put, physically and to deepen where we are–the greatest truth is this: we do not go alone.
I hope you know that. I hope you know that Jesus is always with you. And that God doesn’t expect us to get it right all the time, or even to say yes the first time, or the second, or third. But getting to yes, when we sense God is calling us to go somewhere, is, in fact, better than no. Even if where God’s calling us is right where we are, trying to determine the next faithful step.
May God bless us all in our going out and coming in, from this time forth and forever more. Amen.