When A Star Beckons

by | Jan 5, 2020

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things… 
Ephesians 3:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and we have come to pay him homage.
Matthew 2:1-12

Picture this scene: two elderly Catholic bishops, speaking to one another of how they felt, as young men many years before, when they heard the call–God’s call–for them to become priests. “I felt such peace,” said one. “Clarity about my life’s purpose, and peace.” The other smiled sadly, “I, too, was clear,” he said. “But I’m afraid there was no peace.” For he had proposed marriage to a woman with whom he was in love, and heeding the call meant breaking the heart of someone he loved, and breaking his own heart as well. (A scene from the film The Two Popes.)

I would like to speak to you about the mysterious experience of feeling a claim on your life or a summons to a particular path in life or task at hand that, for reasons that defy explanation, you know is of God. Depending on how the experience comes to you or in what part of your life it speaks, you may not associate the sensation of call with God at first, or ever, and yet the experience, both outside of yourself and with deep internal resonance, compels you to acknowledge that there’s more going on than what you can fully comprehend. While it’s certainly possible to ignore or deny the call, still it haunts you, and even if there is great cost in heeding it, there is an overpowering liberation and fulfillment that comes with saying yes. 

The first thing to say about such a call is that it isn’t the same experience for everyone, and we aren’t always able to trust our feelings to guide us, at least not at first. Sometimes the call brings peace, joy and excitement, yet at other times it can cause real inner turmoil and even dread. Sometimes the sense of call is compelling and clear, and we know exactly what we’re supposed to do and why. Other times, the call is far less clear, and we have to trust that clarity as we take our first steps in response. 

Just yesterday, I met with the vestry of another congregation in this diocese, one that is at an important crossroads in its life. The vestry members know that they have a significant decision to make, one that will surely cause tension in the community. As we talked, all felt the weight of the decision. Some shed tears at the thought of moving forward; others worried that they wouldn’t have the courage to hold steady. And yet not moving forward also had its price. 

As we spoke, I was reminded of a story–purely fictional–entitled The Other Wise Man, written in the late 1800s. It tells of another man from the East named Artaban, an interpreter of the stars, who like the three we read of in the Gospel of Matthew, was drawn to travel from his homeland to Judah in search of the one born to the Jews. The Jews were, it should be noted, a discredited race according to their religion, but still the message came to him and others that from the Jews a Messiah was to come. 

Artaban called together a small group of spiritual leaders to tell of his plan to join the three who had already begun their journey, inviting others to come, too. All declined for reasons that we would understand: one felt it was a fool’s journey and nothing would come of it; another felt unfit for such a long journey; another had a young wife and family; still another felt bound by the duties of his office. The last to speak was the oldest man who loved Artaban as a son. He said this:

It may be that the light of truth is in this sign that has appeared in the skies, and then it will surely lead to the Prince and the mighty brightness. Or it may be that it is only a shadow of the light, as others have said, and then he who follows it will have only a long pilgrimage and an empty search. But it is better to follow even the shadow of the best than to remain content with the worst. And those who would see wonderful things must often be ready to travel alone. I am too old for this journey, but my heart shall be a companion of the pilgrimage day and night. Go in peace.” (Henry van Dyke, The Other Wise Man (originally published in 1895).)

Artaban, as it turns out, never catches up with the other three wise men, but on this journey he had spiritual adventures of his own, as he stops to care for people along the way. When he finally arrives in Jerusalem as an old man, he encounters Christ on the cross. 

Stories like his, like the one in Scripture of the three wise men who follow a star to Bethlehem, are classic expressions of the kind of call that sets us on a journey of unknown destination. In many ways it symbolizes the human journey through life–we all follow stars of one kind or another, we look for guidance from our surroundings, and we take the next step. 

Sometimes the call comes as an affirmation of the path we’re already on, coming to us as encouragement to stay the course in the face of hardship and uncertainty. One of the most moving accounts that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave of his sense of call was during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts of the mid 1950s. We look back on the boycott as one of the early victories of the Civil Rights Movement, and indeed, it was. But at the time, it was an exercise of endurance in the midst of increasingly hostile resistance that lasted over a year–far longer than any of the organizers had anticipated or planned for, including King. King was at the center of everything, dealing with police harassment, bomb threats at his home, logistical problems in getting people back and forth to work and growing fatigue among the boycotters. One particularly lonely night, he sat at his kitchen table, buried his face in his hands, and acknowledged to himself that he was afraid. He had nothing left, and he was afraid that the people would falter if they looked to him for strength. “I can’t face it alone,” he prayed. And as he spoke these words, he later recalled, his fears melted away. He heard an inner voice tell him to do what he thought was right. “Trust your instincts,” he heard God say. It was the first transcendent experience of his life, and it helped him to rise from the table and continue on the path that God had set before him. (Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: American in the King Years, 1954-63. (NY, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998).)

Other times, however, the call is to change course and go a different way. A classic biblical story of dramatic reversal is the conversion of Saul of Taurus, who afterwards assumed his Roman name, Paul. Saul, you may remember, was a Jewish leader who came to prominence by persecuting followers of Jesus after the resurrection. He was convinced that this Jesus movement was a serious threat to all that he and his people stood for, and he was determined to stop it by whatever means necessary. Until the call came to him on the Road to Damascus in the form of a blinding light and a voice that spoke, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” As a result of that call and all that happened afterwards, Saul’s like took the most dramatic turn possible and he became the one we know as St. Paul, the most influential apostle of the One whose movement he had originally intended to destroy. 

The turn-around-and-go-in-a-different-direction type of call isn’t always as dramatic as that, but there’s no mistaking the shift for the one experiencing it. Notice how at the end of the passage describing the journey of the wise men they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod as they had been instructed, but to go home by another road–a subtle turn, to be sure, but unmistakable. Matthew’s gospel places the story of the wise men coming to Bethlehem in between accounts of Joseph’s call–the one who was to raise Jesus as his son. 

You may remember that Joseph, when learning that Mary, to whom he was engaged, was pregnant, planned to break off the engagement, but then, in a dream he heard a call to take Mary as his wife and raise the child as his own. After the wise men left Bethlehem, Joseph was warned in a dream that the child was in danger, and so rather than stay in his homeland, he changed his life completely and took his young family away to live as refugees in Egypt. 

I, personally, don’t have dreams like the ones described in Scripture, but sometimes a call comes to me in that quiet place inside that is often associated with intuition. It’s like a feeling, but stronger, with both an external and internal quality to it. Sometimes the call is to stay the course when I’m struggling. Other times it is to change direction and go by another road. And because clarity often eludes me at first, I find that I must listen and pay attention, take initial steps according to what bits of light I’m given.  

Pope Francis describes the process of discerning call this way: 

Prayerful discernment must be born out of a readiness to listen: to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways. Only if we are prepared to listen, do we have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas, our usual habits and ways of seeing things. In this way, we become truly open to accepting a call that can shatter our security, but lead us to a better life. (Pope Francis, Rejoice and Be Glad: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018), p.83.)

While it’s certainly to ignore or dismiss whatever it is Jesus may be inviting us to, in my experience, something in me dies when I don’t follow the star placed before me. I don’t know what it’s like for you, but I urge you to listen for the call, watch for the star, take whatever tentative steps you can toward a destiny that only God can see. 

I have been your bishop since 2011. When I answered the call to this post, I believed that God was asking me to dedicate my life to the spiritual renewal and structural transformation of the Episcopal congregations under my care so that as many of them might not merely survive, but thrive in the new ministry context they find themselves in. 

At first I went about that work with all the energy and commitment I had, alongside many others. After six years or so, I realized that while God was good all the time, grace abounds everywhere, and there were signs of vitality in many of our communities, nonetheless we were not making overall progress in terms of renewal and spiritual vitality. Our vision for ministry far exceeded our capacity to carry it out. I had the strong sense that if we continued on the path we were on, when I handed the crozier to the next bishop of this diocese, we would have fewer healthy, sustainable, growing congregations than when I received it. 

I felt, as Pope Francis put it, that reality itself was challenging me, and all of us, to consider a different course–same vision, but a different course, and a different approach. So it was that we began a collective process of discernment and strategic planning, the results of which are now before us as a diocese and in 2020, we will enter an implementation phases.

The Rev. Peter Jarret Schell has been your rector since 2012.  When you called him, you stated to the world on your website and parish profile that you were a legacy church, an historic African American congregation with a proud history of people who worked hard to serve Christ and their neighbors. You felt called, you wrote, to bring your legacy into the 21st century. The week prior to the service when we celebrated this new ministry relationship, Rev. Peter preached a sermon–one of his first here–in which he reflected on the story of King Solomon. After building a glorious Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon had a mystical experience that reminded him the world is God’s temple. Soloman realized that God didn’t need his Temple, anymore than God needs our shrines and altars and prayers and hymns, unless God chooses to use them to further God’s Mission.  

Two years later, under the leadership of Rev. Peter and Rev. Gail Fisher Stuart, you undertook a comprehensive strategic planning process, which concluded with a long list of ambitious goals, all of which, I am persuaded, having read them again, are consistent with God’s vision for you in this place. Yet I wonder if this isn’t a time for you, as for me as your bishop, to ask if God is inviting you to find your way home, your way to the vision given you, by another road. Because if you continue on the path you are on, even with the vision and the good work you are about now, the congregation will be much, much weaker in just a few years than it is now. 

I don’t pretend to know what that other road is, although I suspect some of you do. I have some sense of it in the context of the wider vision. I ask you to be brave, be discerning, and to continue in the collective discerning about God’s preferred future for Calvary and the Episcopal Church as a whole.  

There is no question that the Jesus Movement is alive and well. The question for us is how are we being called as the Episcopal Church to be part of that movement. The call to us may bring peace; it may bring turmoil at first. But if it is of God, we can trust it. And what I promise is that I will be with you, as your bishop, as together we follow our star, listen for the call, and walk on the road set before us.