The Gift of Clarity

by | Nov 11, 2018

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.”
Deuteronomy 30:11-14

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.
Matthew 4:18-22

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.