This Treasure in Clay Jars

This Treasure in Clay Jars

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
Genesis 1:1-2

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:16-20

Good morning, Christ Church, Georgetown. It’s an honor to be with you on this beautiful June morning and on such a wonderful occasion in the life of this congregation and the lives of those of you who are to be Confirmed or Received into The Episcopal Church. A special welcome to family and friends here to support you, and to all guests. We are so glad that you are here.

I bring you greetings from the 85 congregations that, along with Christ Church, constitute the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Together we are the collective witness of The Episcopal Church across the District of Columbia and four counties of Maryland, and we reflect the diversity of this region. Nearly every Sunday I pray with a different congregation. In recent weeks, I’ve worshiped in Dupont Circle and Southeast DC. Later today I’ll be at St. Mary’s in Foggy Bottom, the first Black congregation in our diocese. Next week I’ll be in Hyattsville, Maryland at one of our largest congregations, St. Matthew/San Mateo, whose members are predominantly immigrants from Spanish speaking countries, and later in the month at Christ Church in Clinton, Maryland, a small community in southern Prince George’s County.

My responsibility and privilege as your bishop is to steward our collective witness, do whatever I can to strengthen our congregations, support our leaders, and seek meaningful collaboration among us, as we all strive to know, love and follow Jesus and His way of love in this world. I’m very happy to be here today.

Let me take this opportunity to acknowledge with gratitude the leadership of Christ Church, the elected members of your vestry, and the many who serve in ministry here; including the dedicated team of Christ Church’s staff, clergy and lay who give of themselves so generously, and especially your good rector, Fr. Tim Cole. Please join me in an expression of gratitude for him and all who serve.

I’d like to begin my reflection with a biblical text from the same letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, Greece that we just read. It’s believed that Paul wrote this letter no more than twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, so it is one of our oldest Christian texts. What I want to share with you is part of a section in the letter in which Paul is acknowledging the real hardships of his ministry, his failures and that of others. But then he pivots to a statement of hope, why it is that, despite all that, he does not lose heart:

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
2 Corinthians 4:6

Notice where the initiative comes from in what Paul is describing: It is the God who said, Let light shine out of darkness (harkening back to the magnificent story of Creation that we just heard); God who has shone in our hearts, to give knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

If there is one thing I hope you remember from my words today it is this: that any spiritual experience you and I are blessed with in our lives comes at God’s initiative, when God comes to us as light shining in darkness or in any of the countless ways we might experience God. We don’t make them happen; they aren’t a reward for good spiritual behavior or correct belief. On the contrary, Paul says: we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it’s clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

One of the dynamics Paul is describing for us is the power of a spiritual experience–however it comes to us–followed by an inevitable sense of let down, because the feelings associated with it typically don’t last. In that way, it’s similar to other experiences when we are at the top of our game or on top of the world–until we’re not. In the emptiness that follows, we’re tempted to dismiss the power and goodness and joy and love that we felt before, as if it had never happened or wasn’t real.

What Paul is saying to us is that those moments when we feel most alive, and connected, and inspired and loved–they are real, but the feelings associated with them come and go. We are like clay jars, he says, ordinary containers that are blessed from time to time to hold extraordinary grace. What we learn, over a lifetime, is that what defines the depth and breadth of our faith, as well as our capacity to love and pursue anything of significance in this life, is how we persevere when we don’t feel anything at all, when all we have is the memory of what we once felt.

The church musician Mark Miller wrote a song about what I’m describing here, based on a poem that was found scratched on the wall of a World War II concentration camp, with the refrain:

I believe in the sun. I believe in the sun, even when, even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love. I believe in love, even when, even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when, even when God is silent.1

Such statements of belief in emptiness are built on other moments when, in fact, the sun was shining, when love was deeply felt, and when God did speak in ways that prompted belief–not merely as affirmation of an idea, but as something, and someone, real, that can be trusted, even in absence.

So let’s think about those moments, shall we?

Looking back on your life thus far, call to mind if you can, an experience that you would define, on your own terms, as holy, or sacred, something that drew you out of yourself and put you in touch–if only for a moment–with the mystery of life and love and power that lies beyond you, an beyond this world, but somehow came to you in that moment. Perhaps you have had many such moments. If so, which ones stand out in your memory?

When I asked this question to those preparing for Confirmation during the years when I was a parish priest, two categories of responses came up over and over again. First, there were experiences of holiness in nature, be it while trekking through the wilderness, walking the beach, or contemplating the stars on a clear night. For those who gave voice to such experiences, they were describing more than a fun hike or a pretty sky. Something touched them in the moments they gave voice to; something came to them that spoke to them of the mystery that we name as God.

The other common response was of sacred moments mediated through the influence or presence of other people. One young man spoke of his grandparents and how he felt in their presence–loved unconditionally, and prized by them. “Once I watched them walking together, holding hands on the beach,” he said, “and I felt such love for them–a love that felt bigger than I’ve ever felt before. It felt holy.” It was human love, but more than that–a greater love experienced through other people.

These are universal human experiences of holiness, mediated through the grandeur of the natural world and the gift of human love. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the sacred texts of our faith tradition speak of God as Creator, the source and the ground of all life, revealed to us, in part, through the grandeur and power of Creation. Such an assertion doesn’t negate or refute science or evolutionary theory; it is rather a poetic, inspired expression of the great mystery at the heart of all existence that was created in goodness and love.

Second, in what is the fundamental assertion of the Christian faith, when God wanted to fully reveal divine love to human beings, for good reason God came to us as a human being, and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus. For it is through other human beings that we first experience and learn love, and it is often through human love that we know something of divine love–the source of all love mediated through human love. As we sang in the great hymn attributed to St. Patrick: “Christ in all the hearts that love me.”

I’d like to highlight one other way we can experience God, in addition to experiences of holiness in Creation and through the love of others, and that is, through a sense of call, the feeling that we’re being asked to do something or to go somewhere, to step out into the unknown, or step up to do something brave.

Here I’d like to speak personally. For the defining spiritual moment in my life was such an experience; and it remains my touchstone–my true conversion experience, in that I felt Christ speak to me, and I responded. It happened a long time ago, when I was 17, but I can remember how I felt as if it were yesterday, in part because other experiences in the years since have felt like echoes of what happened to me then.

I was already a practicing Christian at the time. I had been attending a church that put a high premium on conversion experiences and making a conscious commitment to surrender one’s life to Christ, which I had done, although I never felt as if my conversion was as powerful or complete as others in my church. Due to circumstances in my family, I had a difficult decision to make. My father and step-mother were divorcing, and both offered to let me live with them, but for reasons I won’t go into here, neither possibility felt safe. The minister of my church offered to let me live with him and his family, which I did for several months.

The last thing I wanted to do was leave my high school midway through my junior year. I was in love with my boyfriend at the time. Most importantly I had found, and was utterly devoted to, an alternative family among my friends and the adult mentors in my life.

But a voice inside kept telling me that I couldn’t stay; that I had to go. And I knew where. It was time for me to return to my mother, whom I had left when I was 10. That’s a story in itself, but at 17 I had no doubt that this was what I needed to do–even though I didn’t want to, and every authority figure in my life at the time, including the minister of my church, were encouraging me to stay. I knew that I had to leave the people and the life I loved.

Externally, I had never felt so alone. Internally, though, I felt guided and loved by the spiritual presence of God. It felt like light shining in darkness; like the love of Jesus, assuring me that, as He said to His first disciples, that He would be with me, no matter what.

For the first time in my life, though certainly not the last, I learned that believing in Jesus is less a matter of what I think about Him (though I’m a big fan of knowledge) but of stepping out in faith when He summons me to trust Him, even when what He was asking was the very thing I didn’t want to do. It wasn’t an easy journey, and I never expected that it would be, but I am who I am today largely because of the decision to follow what I heard and felt in my heart as a holy call. Whenever that same feeling comes round again, I do my best to pay attention, and follow, even when it’s hard.

So I’ve described for you three broad ways we can experience the power of God, the way divine love is mediated through other people, and an internal sense of summons. I hope that as I’ve spoken, examples from your life have come to you. My prayer is for you to trust those moments as real, as a revelation of God for you, as the Creator of all that is good in this world, of Jesus’ presence and love for you, and of the Spirit’s power to move in and through you in ways large and small.

In closing I’d like to speak briefly about the importance of our response. For while God is the one who initiates, through holy moments and experiences, how we respond to those encounters determines what kind of Christian, or person of faith we will be.

Again, remember that wherever we’re blessed by an experience that we would define as holy, God is the initiator. God’s love for us in Jesus is unconditional–there’s nothing we can do to cause him to love us more or less, and God will never stop reaching out to us in love, because God is love.

But our love for God–well, that’s on us. We have choices to make in response to God. We can choose the path of plausible deniability, that is, to dismiss the authenticity or significance of our spiritual experiences. Or we can choose the path of a deeper relationship with God, through prayer, study of Jesus’ life and teachings, and learning from Christians whose love and faithfulness inspire us. A relationship with God is not that different from any other relationship in the sense that it grows deeper and more meaningful if we tend to it.

In a moment, those of you who are to be confirmed and received will stand before the altar of God to recite the ancient words handed down to us, words of faith and commitment. As you do, remember the most sacred, holy moments of your life as your touchstone.

Then I will invite the rest of you to stand and reaffirm your faith, using an ancient credal statement of belief. Everytime you hear me ask if you believe, think of the word trust. Can you put your trust in God, in Jesus and in the Holy Spirit today? Then when I ask the questions that refer to practices of life, think of them as your response to God, and ways to draw closer from your side, to grow in faith and knowledge about the One who calls you by name, and giving God in Christ more to work with through you, in love for this world. No matter what you do or don’t do, Jesus is with you always, to the end. He invites you, invites all of us, to be with Him. It is up to you, and to me, to respond to love and invitation, not once, but again, and again, and again.


1I Believe, music video by Mark Miller

Saying the Most Important Things

Saying the Most Important Things

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
John 14: 1-8

Good morning. Thank you for your warm welcome. I’m very happy to be worshiping at St. Mark’s, a community for whom I hold great admiration. I am also glad to be with my long-time friend and colleague, Michele Morgan. I was thinking this week about the letter I wrote to our then bishop of Minnesota, commending Michele for ordination. I told him people like Michele don’t come along every day, that she would be one to change our church for the better. Please join me in giving thanks for her ministry.

It is the beginning of May, which means, among other things, that we are entering the time of year marked by celebrations and rites of passage. There are graduations and weddings; in the church, it’s the season of ordinations. Today at St. Mark’s we are celebrating Baptism, Confirmation, Reception, and the Reaffirmation of Faith.

While not related to the season, St. Mark’s has had its share of funerals of late, the ultimate passage from this life to the next. The gospel text we read this morning is the most frequently chosen for funerals, for good reason. They are comforting words to hear in times of grief: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. . . I am going to prepare a place for you.

One thing these services have in common is that the person speaking attempts to give words of inspiration, the best they can offer for those whose celebratory moment is at the center of the gathering.

In a moment, that’s what I’ll do–give the best I can say today about the Christian faith for those making commitments today. But first, I invite you to think about what it feels like to give someone the best you’ve got, to dig deep to find the most important words you have to say in a given situation.

I once knew a man who worked as a chaplain at an assisted living facility. He took it upon himself to encourage everyone there to write a love letter to their families. It wasn’t their will. It was an offering from their hearts, a means of sharing their most important life lessons and hopes for their loved ones.

We needn’t wait until the end of our lives to do this. We could write letters to our children or grandchildren, our friends, colleagues, and neighbors whenever they reach an important milestone, or when we simply want to bless them. I had dinner last night with a colleague who is experiencing a time of real disappointment, and he told me how much it meant to him that people have reached out to him with words of encouragement and affirmation. They have been a lifeline in what would otherwise be a very lonely season of his life. If there’s someone you know who is going through a hard time, or embarking on an adventure, or has accomplished something they’ve worked hard for, I wonder what you might say to them, in wisdom and in love? What you might express by way of gratitude to those who have helped you along the way?

Here is what I have on my heart to say on this occasion of Baptism, Confirmation, Reception and Reaffirmation of Christian promises. I speak as one who has been a conscious believer in Jesus, and a follower of Jesus, since I was a teenager. It’s been quite a journey, and I’ve learned a few things. There’s still much more for me to learn, but this I know:

First: There is a difference between believing things about Jesus and believing in Jesus, between knowing things about Jesus and Him. The two are related–you can’t believe in Jesus if you don’t know anything about Him. Of course our knowledge will always be imperfect, and we all run the risk of believing in, or rejecting for that matter, a caricature of Him, or assuming that our partial knowledge is complete.

There is also the difference between the knowledge we gain by reading the gospel texts that tell of his life, and the knowledge of first hand experience, an encounter with the living Christ. Again, the two are related. If the purpose of our biblical texts was simply to pass on knowledge, we’d read them once and be done with them. Instead, we read and meditate on them continually, in worship, study, private devotion, because through the stories of Scripture, Jesus sometimes speaks a direct and personal word to us.

Believing in Jesus, however, is as much a matter of the heart as it is one of intellectual conviction. It happens in ways not that different from what it’s like for us to believe in other people, as an act of trust. To believe in Jesus is to place our trust in the possibility that the mystery we call God–the Source of all this true and good and real, the wonder of life and the mystery of love–took on human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in order to show us what divine love looks like in the flesh–unconditional, compassionate, forgiving, merciful, and compelling.

Moreover, the part of God that is the person of Jesus, now the living Spirit of Christ, is real for us, and is with us, and is at work in and through us in ways that defy human understanding. As the Apostle Paul put it, his Spirit working in us can accomplish infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine. Sometimes Jesus is there simply to help us get through the challenges and heartache of life; other times, He calls us to acts of great courage, forgiveness, and sacrificial love.

Second, and this is related to the first: whether or not we believe in Jesus isn’t entirely up to us. The faith experience begins with an encounter, initiated from His side. That encounter takes many forms, but the point is, the invitation initiates with Him–although our openness to receive Him is key, because Jesus is not a bully. The encounter can be as if we hear–if that’s the right word for it–our name; as if we’re being summoned somehow. It can come through a moment of beauty and inspiration. For many, believing in Jesus begins rather dramatically, with an experience of being rescued or forgiven; for others, it’s more gradual, and only in retrospect do they realize how much Jesus has been with them all along. However Jesus comes to us, we have the sense that He knows us for who and what we are, and loves us still, unconditionally and completely.

Often the experience of Jesus is mediated by another person, and His presence is sometimes palpable in Christian community. Faith, it’s said, is more caught than taught, and it is a shared experience. Sometimes, though, He comes to us in a moment of quiet. He meets us in the times of greatest joy and immense suffering; I experience Jesus most powerfully in the gap between what is needed and what I have to offer.

Good teaching in faith is incredibly important, yet another plug for Christian community. One of the critical turning points in my life of faith was when I was in the midst of a genuine faith crisis, caught between two very different ways of understanding what it meant to be a Christian. The people who mattered most to me at the time and who had initially introduced me to the faith leaned one way, and the way I felt was more authentic to who I was and what I knew to be true was leaning another way. I didn’t want to hurt or anger the spiritual authorities in my life, and yet, I no longer believed much of what they believed about Jesus and what it meant to follow Him. Their teaching no longer spoke to me.

That’s when someone gave me a copy of a book, now out of print, entitled Turning: Reflections on the Experience of Conversion by Emilie Griffin. It was her personal account of how she came to faith–a lifelong process of struggle and doubt and intellectual questioning. She wove in stories about well-known 20th century Christians whose faith journeys were anything but straightforward, among them Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis. That book freed me to trust my own experiences, to take my own journey seriously, and listen inside myself, for what the theologian Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine.”

Which leads me to the third and final thing I’d like to say about having a personal relationship with God through Jesus. It evolves and grows and changes over time, and as a result we evolve and grow and change in ways that we can’t anticipate looking forward and that we may only realize looking back. Ideally, although not always, we grow in our capacity to love as Jesus loves, and forgive as He forgives. Often, however, we fail in love and forgiveness, and we find ourselves as the one needing forgiveness, or healing, or both. Sometimes, in faith, our prayers are answered and our deepest desires are met. Other times, they are not, and we must learn to live with grief and sorrow. That’s when Jesus can show up in ways that make possible for us what would be impossible on our own–for we realize that we’re not alone, and that His grace will see us through.

So that’s what I have on my heart to say, some of the most important things I have come to believe about believing in Jesus. But I’d like to leave with what Jesus has to say, which brings us back to the Gospel of John.

This passage we read this morning–the one we are most likely to hear at funerals– marks the beginning of a long section in the Gospel of John that contains Jesus’s final words to His disciples before His death. It’s His love letter.

The setting is at their last supper together. He’s already shared bread and wine with His disciples, telling them that whenever they break bread together in the future, He will be with them. He’s just finished wrapping a towel around His waist, taking a basin and pitcher of water and washing each one of the disciples’ feet, saying to them, “Do you see what I have done for you? I have given you an example, that you might serve others as I have served you.”

Then He sits down and speaks to them—three chapters’ worth of wisdom and assurance. They are some of the most inspiring passages of Scripture. It’s too much to read in one setting, for each sentence is enough to ponder for a day, or a lifetime. You won’t find His ethical exhortations here–for that, we would turn to the Sermon on the Mount. This is spiritual encouragement and consolation, an invitation to believe in Him, to trust Him as One who is with you and for you.

He starts off by saying: Don’t let your hearts be troubled. No matter what happens next, I’m going to be okay and so are you. God is still God. He says, in essence, although I’m going away, I will never leave you. And you know where I’m going.

The disciples have no idea what He’s talking about. They don’t know where He’s going; they certainly don’t know the way. Then He says to them: Don’t worry. Remember everything that you’ve experienced and keep your eyes on me. I’ll get you there.

Truth be told, by the time the Gospel of John was written, most, if not all, of the first disciples had died. So these words weren’t written for them. They were written for us. This is who Jesus can be for us and what He offers us, whenever we choose to believe–place our trust–in Him. What does that look like? Keeping our eyes on Him, and trusting that, no matter what, He’ll see us through.


The Cost of Vision

The Cost of Vision

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
John 9:1

There are many ways of seeing and many forms of blindness. Our physical faculties aren’t the only thing that affects vision. Our emotional state influences what we can and cannot see, as does the level of anxiety within and around us, and where we stand relative to whatever it is we are looking at. The norms of the society we belong to play a role in what we see and cannot see, as does the cost of acknowledging what we see.

With vision, there is a choice to be made, and often a price to pay. One biblical commentator, Gail O’ Day, makes this last point regarding the lengthy story we’ve just read:

“The man born blind. . .has nothing to lose in the encounter with Jesus and so is open to who Jesus is and what Jesus has to offer. The Pharisees, in contrast, have much to lose and therefore much to protect, and they fight to maintain their known world.”1

I’m reminded here of a story that Anthony de Mello tells of a monk who died and was buried by his fellow monks in the tradition of their monastery, in a crypt on the back wall of their chapel. After the funeral service, they heard noises from the other side of the wall. They reopened the crypt, and the monk who died rose from the coffin and told them of his experience beyond the grave, which contradicted everything their tradition taught about life after death. So, they put him back in the wall.2

Receiving one’s sight can be life-giving–as it was for the man born blind, and others we read of in the New Testament whose physical blindness Jesus healed. But it can also be a jarring experience, particularly when we now see something that we hadn’t seen before that is upsetting to us, or challenging, or traumatizing.

I was blessed this week to be given an advanced copy of a new biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. written by the investigative journalist, Jonathan Eig. It’s over 500 pages long and I’m just getting started, but the first chapters have been amazing, because it begins by telling the story of King’s grandparents, born in chattel slavery, and his parents. His father was born into a sharecropper’s family, which he left to pursue a call to ministry and a life in the city of Atlanta. He was among the giants of his generation to fight for justice and dignity for Black Americans.

Martin Luther King, Jr.–born in the same year that this church (St. George’s, DC) had its beginnings–had the good fortune of being born and raised on Auburn Avenue, where Black teachers, doctors, business owners in Atlanta lived, and whose children were temporarity shielded from the racial violence that erupted with regularity in the Jim Crow South. He grew up in a loving multi-generational household by educated parents in a stable marriage. His parents were proud of their heritage and instilled that pride in their children. They also taught them to treat all people with respect and kindness.

Across the street from the King home, there was a small grocery store owned by a white family. When King was three years old, he and the son of the store owner became playmates. Three years later, when they went to separate schools, King still sought the other boy’s companionship in the evenings and on weekends. But friendship faded, and King struggled to understand why. “That’s when the boy told the young King that it wasn’t just the start of school that caused the separation; but the color of his skin. The boy was no longer permitted to play with Black children.”3

King was stunned. “For the first time I was made aware of the existence of a race problem,” he would later write. “I had never been conscious of it before.” His mother assured him, “You are as good as anyone,” which signaled for him that there were people who would think otherwise, simply because he was Black. “From that moment on, I was determined to hate every white person.”4

When, as an adult, King told this story of his racial awakening, he used it to underscore the fact that children are not born racist; racism had to be taught. Different skin colors had been assigned unequal values that predetermined what people saw when looking upon a white or Black child. But King refused to see himself the way white society did, and he refused to accept racism as the lens through which to see others. The more people challenged him, the stronger his convictions became. “His determination to hate every white person faded quickly, but his determination to fight racism never diminished.”5

I tell you this story about King’s childhood trauma, as one of the foundational moments of his life, because it highlights the gift and the cost of holding true to one’s vision, one’s understanding of truth, whenever there is great pressure to deny that truth for the sake of maintaining things as they are. This is one of many of the underlying messages of today’s gospel story of the man born blind.

It’s helpful to remember that the author of the Gospel of John always has several things going on at once in his storytelling. On the surface, it’s a story about healing, not unlike other accounts in the New Testament in which Jesus restores sight to the blind. But in this story, one of the striking elements is that after Jesus heals the blind man, he disappears and leaves the formerly blind man to speak for himself. The man was the one brought to the religious authorities for questioning about what Jesus did; and his parents were interrogated. The Pharisees were as upset about this man’s witness as they were about what Jesus did. As the challenges become more harsh and threatening, the man seems to grow in confidence and clarity. So this is a story about healing, but also about how we are called, as followers of Jesus, to give witness to the truth.6

I wonder what truth–what vision–you are called to give witness to in your life, and at what cost. What do you see that those around you don’t, or refuse to see? What is it like for you to hold that truth, to remain true to what God has given you to see?

Yesterday I was at a meeting of lay and clergy leaders in Southern Maryland, to consider ways that we might organize ourselves differently as The Episcopal Church in Southern Maryland so that those called to leadership might have an easier time with the many responsibilities and burdens they shoulder. As is our custom now, we began the meeting with small table conversations reflecting on questions of faith, using these Path of Discipleship cards. The card I chose had this question:

What struggle or doubt or question of faith are you learning to live with without receiving an answer?

What I said to my table group is this: I don’t have answers for all the big questions in my heart about the nature of this world, the suffering of humankind, and the mysteries of the universe, and I can’t pretend that the faith I have in Jesus is large enough to answer all those questions. And so I have great empathy for those who do not believe in Him or want to pursue a life in the church, particularly when so many of our so-called “answers” are too small. But nor can I give up on Jesus. And to quote other Christian authors that I read this week, “I want to be more like Jesus when I grow up.”7 I want to love like Him, forgive like Him, stand for truth as He did, and be willing to suffer for love’s sake.

There’s more to my answer that I didn’t say to the group, but was at the heart of the meeting yesterday and indeed, at the heart of my work among you as bishop for the years I have left. I don’t know what the Episcopal churches in the Diocese of Washington will look like when I’m gone, when all of us are on the other side of Jordan. But I want nothing more than for our churches to embody His love in such compelling ways that others will see something of Him in us, not because we’re so great, but because we allow His love to shine through our brokenness and sin.

I’m willing to live without knowing, but just as I’m not willing to give up on Jesus, I’m not willing to give up on us. I can’t help but believe that we can rise to this moment, face challenging truths and adapt in ways that will allow us to thrive and be part of Jesus’ mission of transforming, selfless love.

Adapting includes reckoning, coming to terms, yet again, with dimensions of our racist past and the enduring embedded manifestations of racism. It includes acknowledging that the ways we are organized now are not as fruitful and life-giving as we need in order for us to be that compelling witness to Christ’s love. It includes recognizing that we, too, are tempted to blind ourselves to the truths we need to face.

So that’s me.

Let me ask again: what vision has God given you, and what does it cost you to remain true to what you see amid the pressures of conformity? Might there be something that you know is true, but that you haven’t been able to acknowledge fully yet, for fear of the cost, and Jesus is inviting you to be brave? Or perhaps part of your vocation now is to support and encourage others to stand firm in what they see. Remember the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s family and the legacy of his ancestors. Might we be such a source of courage for those coming up behind us?

Allow me to pray for us all:

Gracious God, we thank you for the costly gift of vision. Help us remain true to the insights you have given us, and remain true to who Jesus is. Forgive us for all the ways we refuse to see out of fear. Give us the courage to grow in faith, so that we might speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, through your beloved Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

1Gail O’Day, The Word Disclosed, quoted in A Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, by David F. Ford (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 190.
2Anthony de Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations (New York: Doubleday, 1988)
3Jonathan Eig, King: A LIfe (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), 27
5Eig, 28.
6This insight about the formerly blind man’s witness to faith comes from David Ford, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, pp. 189-202.
7Matt Sternke and Matt Tebbe, Having the Mind of Christ: Eight Axioms to a Robust Faith (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2022), 3.

Jesus’ Hard Sayings

Jesus’ Hard Sayings

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. . . it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Matthew 5:21-37

It’s the custom of the diocesan staff to begin our meetings with a reflection on the gospel text for the upcoming Sunday. So last Tuesday, we read the passage you just heard. Normally our conversation is lively and animated, but not this time. It was jarring to hear Jesus speak in such harsh and condemning language. For some, myself included, his words touched a nerve.

I wonder if you had a similar reaction as the text was read.

In a mere fifteen verses of Jesus’ most famous sermon–known as the Sermon on the Mount–Jesus has painful things to say to all of us. Could this be the same Jesus who said in other contexts, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” and “I have come not to judge the world, but to give life to the world.”?

Hyperbole is the word we use to describe an extreme exaggeration to make a point, and Jesus spoke in hyperbole a lot. He said things like, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Jesus liked getting people’s attention, but if taken literally, his hyperbolic statements can be dangerous. Then again, if we simply dismiss them, or explain away what biblical scholars aptly call Jesus’ “hard sayings,” we miss the growth that comes when we are challenged by truths that we don’t want to hear or are taken to those painful places within us where we are in need of God’s healing grace.

What could be more troubling and offensive than hearing Jesus encouraging us to cut off offending members of our bodies to avoid sin?

I am quite certain that Jesus wasn’t encouraging us to do bodily harm to ourselves for the sake of spiritual purity. Nor do I believe that sinful thoughts are the same as actual deeds. His blunt point is that sometimes it’s best to avoid situations that cause us to sin, and we know that this is true. We know it’s best to stay away from certain circumstances that lure us into behavior or deeds we will later regret. So stay away from them, he counsels us. To do so can feel as hard as cutting off a limb because there is a part of us that wants what is not best for us.

Jesus was adament that our thoughts can be dangerous, which we also know is true. If acted upon, our unchecked thoughts can lead to real pain. Moreover, inner integrity requires self-discipline, which isn’t the same as having an internal police officer monitoring our every thought, but is rather a gentle, yet firm, daily practice of choosing life.

Jesus goes on to say harsh things about divorce, which touches a nerve for a lot of people, myself included. My parents divorced when I was an infant. This was in the early 1960s when divorce in this country was still a scandal. The Episcopal Church’s teaching on marriage and divorce in those years was patterned on this very passage and the notion that any divorced married man or woman remarries, is committing adultery. Remarriage after divorce was rarely permitted in The Episcopal Church, and my mother, as a young divorcée, was in essence told that she could never marry again.

I vividly remember the time when one of my mother’s friends who was also divorced became engaged to another man. The priest of our congregation told her that if she remarried, she and her new husband would be committing adultery. This woman, whose name was Linda, was initially devastated, but then she had a realization–one of those epiphanies in life that gives one courage. Linda mustered up her courage and told our priest that he was wrong, that she fully intended to re-marry, and she felt confident that God had led her to this new relationship. If he didn’t want to preside over the ceremony, she would find another priest who would. To his credit, our priest realized that Linda was acting out of great faith and he agreed to the wedding.

There’s no need for us to hang our heads in shame for the fragility of our marriages. Long-term intimate relationships are among the most humbling and audaciously hopeful human undertakings. How could we not fail at them? Surely Jesus understands that. On the other hand, Jesus espouses an undeniably conservative relational and sexual ethic, one meant to protect women in the patriarchal society of his day in which men had all the power. There is a word for us here, holding up the importance of living a vowed life, and persevering in relationship when times are hard.

For me, the most painful part of this passage is in the first few lines, about reconciling with a brother or sister before approaching God’s altar. You see, if I were to leave my gift at the altar and not return until I am fully reconciled with my brother, I don’t know when I would be back.

I’m not speaking about “my brother” in the universal sense. I mean my flesh-and-blood brother, my half-brother to be precise, who has chosen to keep me at arm’s length. He surfaces from time to time, as he did recently when his mother died. We had a sweet reconciliation, or so I thought, but he withdrew again, choosing to live his life apart from me.

I wish I could say that my brother is the only person who comes to mind whenever I read or hear these words, but he’s not. I’m 63 years old. I’ve made mistakes and hurt people deeply, and people have hurt me. By God’s grace and with a lot of love and forgiveness, some of those relationships survived, but others didn’t. Everytime I hear Jesus’ words about reconciliation before coming to the altar, they are the relationships that come to mind.

I’ve learned some things about reconciliation, in success and failure, that I carry with me.

I’ve learned, for starters, that reconciliation requires forgiveness. If you can’t forgive another person, if that person can’t forgive you, or you can’t forgive yourself, reconciliation is impossible. It is possible to forgive someone without reconciling, that is, to release another person from the burden of your hurt and disappointment, move on with your life and let that person move on too, but not continue in relationship with one another. I learned this from an elderly woman in the parish I served as rector who was robbed by a young man she had befriended from her twelve-step group. With bruises on her arm and face, she looked up from her hospital bed and said, “I forgive him for what he’s done. But I don’t want to see him again.” I knew both statements were true: she needed no restitution or even an apology. But as she was in her eighties, with limited energy, she chose not to invest any more in that relationship.

Reconciliation is only possible when those involved are ready to forgive one another and move forward together. You can forgive alone, but you can’t reconcile alone. It’s a painful realization, to be sure, because if someone doesn’t want to be reconciled with you, there’s nothing you can do. Trying harder to make things right often makes things worse and you have no choice but to let that person go, at least for now. But when both parties are able to forgive and want to move forward together, reconciliation happens, and sometimes with remarkable ease.

Reconciliation also rests upon the kind of personal growth gained through suffering. I’m speaking now of the suffering of the wounded, who don’t deny or discount the pain endured, but nonetheless work hard to grow large enough inside so as not to be defined by their wounds. Reconciliation rests on solid ground of maturity and compassion that living through painful circumstances affords.

The biblical story of Joseph and his brothers comes to mind here: Joseph, as you recall, was deeply resented by his brothers, who were jealous of his favored status in their father’s heart and irritated by his arrogance. So his brothers threw him in a hole and slave traders carried him away. Joseph suffered greatly as a result, and yet over the years he grew through his suffering. He matured in sensitivity and compassion and he learned to use his gifts for good. Through a series of events set in motion by his brothers’ hurtful deed, he found himself in a position of power, so much so that his brothers, who had long assumed Joseph to be dead, were dependent upon him for their very survival. In the moment when he could have lashed out at them in anger, he said instead, “Out of what you intended for evil, God has brought great good.” Joseph no longer needed to hold onto anger or hurt. He was grateful for how his life had turned out and the person he had become through suffering. (Genesis 37-45)

Guilt and shame have no place in a reconciled relationship. There’s no longer need for retribution or restitution. The debt has been paid, and not by the perpetrator, but by the grace of God, serendipity of life, and hard work of the one refusing to be defined by another’s transgression. The balance of power in the relationship is completely reset and reconciliation takes place on that solid ground.

I’ve also learned that reconciliation takes a long time, and that the initial work of it is done apart, as the one wounded grows stronger and heals, and the ones who have wounded also heal from the pain of having hurt another so badly. The healing required on the part of the wounding one is harder than we realize. Often the ones resisting reconciliation are those who have caused the most pain. As Karen Armstrong wrote in her memoir The Spiral Staircase, “It is always difficult to forgive the people we have harmed.”1

Yet when the work is done, and people meet as two who have grown stronger in the broken places, reconciliation is a wondrous thing. It signals a fresh start, yet with all the hard-won benefits of having come through the hardest thing and prevailed. It changes you in ways that are hard to describe, and it gives you hope for the world.

What I know for myself is that I want to be on the side of forgiveness and reconciliation whenever I can. That requires me to take responsibility for my part in the pain and hurt others experience, including my personal behavior and the unearned privilege of my place in this society as a white person. I need to own these things and make restitution whenever I can.

If you, like me, are hoping for reconciliation with one who doesn’t want to reconcile with you, you know well that the path is a lonely one; but it is a path–of prayer, acceptance of what you’ve done, and of the other person’s right to choose not to forgive or be in relationship.

If you, like me, are in need of healing from wounds sustained by others who hurt you, you know that path is a lonely one; but it is a path–of prayer, openness to healing that comes from unexpected places, and a willingness to grow through suffering.

Perhaps we’re on both paths at once. On either path, or both, this I know: we are not alone. God’s grace is there to guide and heal us, so that, one day, here–or on the other side of death–when the gate of reconciliation opens to us, we might be loving and brave, and walk through it to meet the one waiting on the other side.

God’s compassionate and healing presence is what I hope to leave you as you consider any of Jesus’ hard sayings. Allow them to touch the tender places in your lives and dare to engage God honestly in ways that allow you to both speak your truth and receive grace and mercy where you need it most, and the strength to choose what the life-affirming path God wants for you.

1Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

Facing the Hardest Things

Facing the Hardest Things

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’ Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Matthew 4:1-11

Taking my cues from the story we always read on the first Sunday of Lent of the time Jesus was led by Spirit into the wilderness, I’d like to reflect with you about the times in our lives when we are led, or forced, to face something big, potentially life-changing or life-ending. Whatever that something is, there’s no getting around it.
These are the times when we need to be completely honest with ourselves about who we are and what’s in front of us.

Let me begin by telling you about friends of mine, Jeff and Mallie, a couple that my husband and I have known for over 35 years. They were members of the first church I served as an assistant priest in Toledo, Ohio. While we all moved on from Toledo a long time ago, our friendship endured, albeit from a distance.

Sadly, Jeff died recently from an aggressive form of cancer. The amazing thing was that he had lived a lot longer than anyone anticipated when he was first diagnosed. His body responded surprisingly well to experimental treatments that prolonged his life well beyond expectancy for people with his condition. During their last years together, Mallie and Jeff both retired. They traveled and spent time with their grandchildren. Nearly every day Jeff did what he most loved in the world, which was to play golf. Life was good for them, and while Jeff knew that he would eventually die from the cancer, they were able to live long stretches of time without having to think about it. Until recently.

A bit of backstory about Jeff. He grew up Roman Catholic. As a boy he attended masses that were still in Latin; he went to Confession every week; and among the sins he was told to confess was whenever he had eaten meat on Friday. Years later, in response to changes in the Roman Catholic Church, his priest told him that it was no longer a sin to eat meat on Fridays and there was no need to confess it anymore. Jeff was puzzled and then angered by the abrupt change. What do you mean it’s not a sin anymore? What about other sins that I’ve been confessing? Are you going to change your mind about them, too?

During our Toledo years, I remember Jeff going on and on about how angry he was that the Church changed its mind about eating meat on Fridays which I thought funny. For him, though, it was a big deal, and it became a barrier that kept him at arm’s length from any form of religious authority. It kept him at arm’s length from church, and it kept him at arm’s length from God.

Back to the present. In the weeks before he died, Jeff wrote me an email, asking if we could set up a video call so that I could bless a saint’s medal that he had been given as a child. In some way that medal represented the healing power of God. I was touched that he asked me, and I happened to be sick at the time. By the time I recovered, he was too sick to talk, Then he died.

Later Mallie told me about something that happened on the second-to-last night of his life, that was for Jeff a wilderness moment.

“He was scared,” Mallie told me. He was scared to die, and scared to face whatever awaited him after death. He lay in bed, she said, shaking with fear. Mallie noticed that there was rosary by his bed that she had never seen before, and the saint’s medal. She asked if he wanted her to call a priest. “No,” he told her. “Do you want me to sit with you?” she asked. “No,” he said. “I need to pray. I need to pray alone.”

Jeff knew that the time had come to face his fear, to face the final reckoning that death represents, and to face His God. He went into the wilderness that night, or maybe the wilderness came to him. Either way, it was a moment of great courage.

The next day he seemed calmer. As the day went on, Mallie was determined to take him to the hospital. Jeff insisted on staying home. “Alright,” she told him, “But if you aren’t better by the morning, I’m taking you in.” In the morning, Jeff was gone.

In retrospect, Mallie realized that through his night of prayer, Jeff came to a place of acceptance of his death that she had not. She would have done anything to keep him alive a bit longer, but something shifted for Jeff. He faced his fear; he faced His God; and he found peace.

Obviously that’s a very dramatic example of a wilderness experience. They come in many ways, not merely when we’re facing our physical death. Yet however they come, they are what some monks like to call “little deaths.” Friends of ours who moved out to the country ten years ago have just signed a contract for an Independent Living apartment. They may not move into it for years, but signing for it was an acknowledgement that they wouldn’t live on their beloved farm forever. It was, she said, like practicing death.

Let’s return to Jesus’ wilderness experience. You may remember that the Spirit led him there immediately after he was baptized by John in the Jordan River. He had just had this amazing experience of rising from the water and seeing a dove descend over him. He heard a voice from heaven declare, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Then off he went into the desert to fast and pray for 40 days.

In one version of this story, all we are told is that Jesus went out into the wilderness where he faced temptation. In the version we read today, the temptations are spelled out. Notice how Satan tempts Jesus by daring him to prove who he was:

If you are the Son of God, turn these loaves into bread;
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple;
If you are the Son of God, worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.

Jesus doesn’t take the bait.

Some have said that Jesus went into the wilderness to learn what it meant from him to be Jesus.

I wonder if our wilderness experiences help us to learn what it means for you and I to be who we are.

Among the many things this season of Lent invites us to consider is what we learn in those truth-revealing experiences–what we sometimes call “Come to Jesus Moments”–when we need to face a particular truth or situation that we’d rather not face, or that seems so big that we freeze whenever we think about it.

Will God meet us in our wilderness?

I’d like to tell you about two other such moments, one from my life as a young adult and the other from one of our son’s life when he was a child.

When my husband Paul and I were first married, I managed to persuade him that we should spend our first year together living and working in Central America. This was during the mid 1980s, when virtually all of Central America was caught up in civil unrest and warfare. Very few of our family thought this was a good idea, but we were young and idealistic, and so very naive.

We spent a few weeks with Paul’s family before we left, and during that time we got all of our immunizations for the various diseases we might encounter in Central America–typhoid, hepatitis, and malaria. Paul had a serious reaction to one of the shots and one night he got really sick. There I was, barely married, convinced that I had killed my husband.

As Paul lay in bed with a high fever, I sat in a chair in an adjacent room, terrified. I happened to be reading from the Gospel of John as part of my prayer practice then, and that night I came to a passage in which Jesus, facing his fate on the cross, prays this prayer: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I pray, ‘Father, spare me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to his hour. Father, glorify your Name.” (John 12:27)

Through these words I heard God say to me something along the lines of, “I cannot spare you the pain and fear you are experiencing now, and will likely experience again. But they are not signs that you have made a mistake. They are part of the journey you are on.”

It was what I needed–an assurance that suffering and fear were part of the path we were on. Paul recovered, and we both got sick several times in our year away, along with other calamities that occurred. In my wilderness moment, Jesus taught me to face fear rather than run from it.

Now the story about our son, Patrick. When he was 8 years old, he fell off a retaining wall and broke his arm badly. Bones protruded from his skin when I scooped him up and took him to the hospital. He was prepped for surgery almost immediately, and as he lay on the gurney about to be wheeled into the operating room, he panicked. So did I.

Everything was happening so fast. Just then, the operating door opened and someone we knew from church approached Patrick. “Hello, Patrick,” he said calmly. “It’s me Lynn Christiansen. I’m the doctor who is going to help you go to sleep now. I’ll stay with you during the entire operation to make sure you will be okay.”

Patrick looked at Lynn, and then at me. Then he gulped once and said, “Okay, let’s go, right now!”

I share all these stories with you as encouragement, should you be facing something hard right now, should there be any place in life where you need to be brave and all you feel is vulnerable and afraid. These are the moments that bring us to our knees, and that’s a good thing. For then we have no choice but to be honest with ourselves and with God.

In those moments, it’s good to hold onto something. Think of Jeff and his rosary and saint’s medal; me and my Bible; Patrick looking into the eyes of a friend. Even Jesus had angels to comfort him.

Wilderness experiences, hard as they are, are often remembered as gifts to us, because in them, we felt the presence of God. They are the moments we look back on as turning points, markers in life, that helped make us who we are, and confident that God is real and there for us in ways we can trust.

May God bless and keep you all this Lent–the time we set aside in church to consider the power of wilderness and remember that whenever we’re in one, we are not alone. Most especially, I pray that God makes His presence known to you in a palpable way in your wilderness times, giving you faith and courage to see you through.


St. John’s, Olney | Visitation Sermon | January 21, 2023

St. John’s, Olney | Visitation Sermon | January 21, 2023

Now when Jesus* heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, casting a net into the lake–for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 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. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Matthew 12:4-23

Good morning! I’m so glad to worship with you at St. John’s, Olney today. If we’ve not met before, I am Mariann Budde and I serve as bishop of this diocese, a geographic area that includes four Maryland counties and the District of Columbia. I’ve been in this position for eleven years, and my work is primarily one of support, encouragement, and resourcing of the eighty-six Episcopal congregations and 10 schools of the diocese. Most Sundays you will find me preaching and presiding at one of our congregations.

This is my fourth Sunday visitation to St. John’s. My second visit stands out in my memory, because it was Fr. Henry’s second Sunday as your rector, back in 2016. My last visit was in late 2019, just four months before the pandemic came and changed our lives. It’s always a poignant experience for me to read my notes from those days, knowing what I know now about what was awaiting us all.

I am a great admirer of Father Henry, Mother Shivaun, Deacon Nancy, and the ministry of this congregation. You are one of the strongest Episcopal congregations in Northern Montgomery County. I give thanks to God for you, for Fr. Henry’s intentional, thoughtful leadership, for Mother Shivaun’s creativity, particularly in spiritual growth and discipleship, and for Deacon Nancy’s passion for service.

Last fall, prompted by a conversation with a group of young adults in another congregation that wanted to ask me far deeper questions of faith than I had anticipated, I sent out a notice in my bi-weekly writings to the diocese, inviting anyone else to ask me their questions of faith. There was a slow response at first, but as the days went on, more questions came. I remain profoundly moved by the honesty and vulnerability of those who have written to me. And I’ve used their questions as the springboard for all my writings and sermons since then.

Here is the question for today:

I often wonder if I truly hear God’s voice when I ask for His guidance or if it’s my own imagination telling me which way to go. I pray that God will help me to hear His voice and to understand His word but I’m afraid that I get distracted and sometimes I’m overwhelmed and may not hear Him. How do I know that I’m going in the direction God is showing me?

Today is the third Sunday in the Christian season of Epiphany–a word that means “revelation,” To have an epiphany is like the proverbial lightbulb going off in your head. I hear in the question I’ve just read a longing for such an epiphany, for a moment of clarity with which to set one’s life course, or to take the next step.

An epiphany is anything that comes to us from the outside that resonates deeply with us on the inside. For there is a part of us that is always listening for that connection, what the great Black theologian Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine.”

In one of the last speeches of his life, a commencement address at Spelman College in 1980, Thurman told the graduates:

There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself, and if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching. And if you hear it and then do not follow it, it would be better for you never to have been born . . .

You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will, all of your life, spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.1

A quick story about listening for the sound of the genuine. When my mother was still living alone in her New Jersey home, she had become increasingly susceptible to telemarketers and scammers that prey upon vulnerable adults. One day she received a call from a woman claiming to be her granddaughter. Her car had broken down in Pennsylvania and she needed money. Could my mother please give her her credit card information so that the car could be repaired?

As it turns out, my mother has one adult granddaughter, the daughter of my older sister, who would have been in her 30s at the time. My mother struggled to understand how her granddaughter could be in such trouble–and what was she doing in Pennsylvania?–and how best to help her. But then it dawned on her: if her granddaughter, Jennifer, was in need of money, she should call her mother! “Call your mother,” she told the woman. “Oh, I can’t do that,” the woman replied. Then my mother knew that the woman on the line wasn’t Jennifer. It wasn’t the sound of the genuine she was hearing. And she hung up.

We just heard one version of how Jesus called his first disciples to follow him–there are several versions of this same story in the gospels, but what they all have in common is their description of how clear those four fishermen were that they needed to drop everything and follow Jesus. This particular version reminds me of the moment in the musical West Side Story when Tony and Maria first see each other across the crowded high school gymnasium. Immediately they knew that they were meant for each other. Apparently, that’s how some people fall in love, and how some of Jesus’ disciples decided to follow him–seemingly in an instant. They must have heard what they were searching for, and they were ready.

I wish I could assure the person who asked me how she can tell when God is guiding her steps that she’ll just know, the way the disciples of Jesus seemed to know. But for those of us who want to follow God’s will, who try to hear Jesus’ voice, and who long for divine guidance when faced with an important decision, it’s not that simple or straight-forward a process.

There’s no escaping the need for us to cultivate some kind of inner spiritual practice, a practice that helps us to listen for the many ways God might speak to us, and to make peace when we aren’t hearing anything at all. Equally important, we need a way to ponder, sort things through, test our perceptions, and get ready for what may be asked of us.

Sometimes what on the outside looks like an impulsive decision has been taking shape within us for some time.

I suspect that the disciples’ seemingly immediate decision to follow Jesus as they did was preceded by experiences and events not recorded in the Gospels. Surely they had seen Jesus before, in and around the villages around the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps they, too, had been followers of John the Baptist, and like Jesus, was motivated by John’s arrest to do something brave with their lives. We don’t know, but it’s hard to imagine that their decision was made without any previous knowledge of Jesus.

But then again, it was Jesus after all, in the flesh. And perhaps there are times for us as well when we are that clear in an instant. Looking back, however, we might recognize how we had been preparing for that moment without awareness. Part of that preparation is how we learn to listen for the sound of the genuine.

One might simply call this spiritual practice “prayer,” but if so, the kind of prayer I’m speaking of has a specific purpose. It is 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 as “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.”2 When we come to a decision through discernment, we have a greater capacity to act in the face of uncertainty, and a willingness to risk failure in the service of what matters most.

So how do we go about this discerning type of prayer? What is it that we do, exactly, when we’re pondering?

Actually, 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. Former president Obama was known for working things out while shooting basketball. Apparently, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a momentous decision before him, he would pretend to get sick and stay in bed for days. 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.

Talking through things is also helpful in the discerning process, particularly with someone you know and trust has your best interests at heart. As a young adult, I spent years in a therapeutic relationship trying to work through one central issue in my life. Looking back, I marvel at my therapist’s patience as I talked, pondered, and resisted, then got angry, and resisted some more. Then I would gain clarity, only to lose it again. So it went, back and forth until finally, my inner world settled enough inside for me to hear. What I heard was silence. God, as far as I could tell, wasn’t saying anything. I took that to mean–stay where you are. Make peace with who you are and where you are. Doing anything else would have been very costly, not only to me but to others, and I needed a clear word if I was to make that kind of change. No word came. So I stayed.

But all the help that others can be, there is something solitary about this listening and pondering process, as we claim for ourselves the path we will take.

One of the more helpful practices of pondering that I have been taught is described in a small book entitled, Sleeping With Bread.3 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 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 as they emerge over time.

When at a particular crossroad, or when striving to discern a particular path; when the ground beneath us shifts or we’re feeling stuck, a simple practice of reflection of what gives us life and takes life from us can guide us. 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 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, as Jesus’ disciples were, to do something truly brave, we will have the capacity and spiritual strength to say yes. It may seem to the world as if we’re acting impulsively, and perhaps sometimes we are. But generally speaking, we’ve been getting ready for that moment for a long time.

Years ago I met an Episcopal priest who served as the director of a camp and retreat center. At the time we met, he was leaving his position as camp director to work in a residential program for troubled teenagers. What he said to me about that move I’ve never forgotten. He said, “I have been preparing all my life for this job.”

I had the sense that he was telling a lot about himself in one sentence–about his own childhood, perhaps, and his own acquaintance with trouble; about times of vocational uncertainty, no doubt a failure here and there. He was telling me about his passion and repertoire of gifts, and that he felt himself to be moving to a place of great potential to exercise those gifts. This was clearly not a set up on any ladder of vocational advancement. But it was, for him, what his entire life had been preparing him to do. And he was ready.

He was about twenty years ahead of me in life and ministry, and I remember envying him for his clarity and freedom to embrace a new life so completely. I also had the sense that the clarity he had attained requires time and work, a lot of listening and interpreting of life as we make our way.

Let me leave you then with a word of encouragement, should there be any area of your life in need of that kind of discerning, listening, and waiting for the sound of the genuine. Trust your unique ways of listening, of pondering–whatever helps you make the connections between what you’re hearing from the outside with what resonates deeply with you on the inside. If it’s a really big decision that you’re wrestling with, take the time to seek out the wisdom of people in your life whom you trust to want what’s best for you. Should you be that person for another, know that you are walking with him or her on holy ground. Know that I, as your bishop, am praying for you as you listen for Jesus’ voice, the sound of the genuine in your heart, that you be given sufficient clarity to respond. And I pray you as a community, under the good leadership of your clergy and vestry, as collectively you do the same.


1Howard Thurman, Commencement Address at Spelman College, May 4, 1980.
2Source unknown. This quote comes from a colleague, Andrew Waldo, who quotes Urban Holmes in a talk he gives on discernment at CREDO conferences.
3Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1995).