Questions to Ponder When Renewing a Vow

Questions to Ponder When Renewing a Vow

Jesus said, ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’
John 12:27-28

The obvious starting point for a gathering with the expressed purpose of renewing a vow is to call to mind when we made that vow for the first time. So I invite you now to think back to the first time that, without a doubt, you knew:

I have decided to follow Jesus,
I have decided to follow Jesus,
I have decided to follow Jesus,
No turning back, no turning back.

For some of us, we can remember a clear, decisive moment. For others, the decision snuck up on us, and our memory is more like a recognition or acknowledgement of something that had been true for some time. For all of us, that first decision or awareness of a decision led to other decisions, other vows–for some on the path of ordination in the church; for the majority of Christians, a path of discipleship and witness in other vocational realms.

Here we are today reaffirming past decisions, renewing–making new–vows we made in the past. We would be made of stone if from time to time we didn’t question those vows. To question, to doubt, and to test past decisions is both human and necessary, because we change over time, our understanding of what the vows mean and require change, and we ourselves are tested.

Thus today’s first question: Given who we are now, what we know now, and what’s happening to us and in our world now, do we choose again to follow Jesus, and renew the later vows that we once made as a result of the first? And if so, how do we choose? What does faithfulness look like now?

There’s that poignant moment in the Gospel of John after Jesus has gone on for a very long and confusing chapter about being the bread of life (every preacher’s dread when it comes up in the Sunday lectionary for an entire month). Understandably after that discourse, many people who had once decided to follow Jesus had second thoughts. “This saying is too hard for us,” they say, and one by one they turn back, until Jesus is alone with the twelve. He looks at them and asks, “And what about you–do you also wish to go away?”

What a question for Jesus to ask them. What would his question be to us? “And what about you, my twenty-first century disciples of The Episcopal Church? Given all that you know now about what it costs to follow me; given all that has hurt, disappointed, frustrated, offended, outraged, and exhausted you–do you also wish to go away?”

When he first asked the question, Simon Peter spoke up for the twelve in a way that breaks my heart open every time I read it. You remember: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69)

My answer, which I’ve had time to think about this week: Lord, given all that you now know about me, if you’ll still have me, I am still with you.

And yours?

Now let’s make the all-important distinction between our vows and our jobs, or whatever way we live out our vows at a given time. For how we live our vows necessarily changes over time. It can change a lot–sometimes because of the choices we make; often because of choices that other people make; and equally as often, because of forces beyond our control. Think of the people of Ukraine, for God’s sake. Everything they thought they could count on has been taken from them.

So here’s a second question: what can you and I say about our vocation that would still be true even if all the external expressions that now define our life and work were taken from us?

There was a union organizing song from the 1960s with the refrain:

Your life is more than your work. Your work is more than your job.

Well, our life in Christ is more than our vocation. And our vocation is way more than any job in the church. What is your vocation, no matter what?

It’s a difficult question, but ultimately a freeing one, for once we have even a glimmer of an answer, we are less dependent on other people and external circumstances to live a meaningful, faithful life. Granted there are optimal places for us to fulfill our vocations, but no shortage of less optimal places.

I don’t say this to justify unjust or oppressive systems, but rather to celebrate the genius of human creativity and resilience, and the Holy Spirit’s infinite capacity to move freely in the world as it is. For followers of Jesus, the question puts us in a mindset of faithfulness and service, rather than privilege, entitlement, and perpetual disappointment. It offers both a somber recognition of what can be taken from us, and a rock solid confidence in what can’t. For what the world didn’t give, the world cannot take away.

Those of you who, like me, are of a certain age may remember the rise of Amy Grant, the first Christian rock musician who crossed over onto the pop charts and had a phenomenal run back in the ‘90s and 2000s. Then her star faded. She no longer draws crowds that fill stadiums for her concerts. Now she plays in smaller venues across the country–theaters, state fairgrounds, the Wisconsin Dells. I heard her give an interview once in which she talked about her meteoric career: “I wanted to be faithful on the way up,” she said. “And I want to be just as faithful on the way down.”

One of the most moving eulogies was given by a friend of mine for his mother, who, by virtue of physical illness and, in the end, dementia, lost everything that externally defined her life and identity. “All that was left,” her son said, “was love.”

Embedded in the passage from the Gospel of John that we’ve just heard is another line that tugs at my heart every time. It’s when Jesus says: Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–’Father, save me for this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. ‘Father, glorify thy name.’ This is John’s version of what the synoptic gospels tell us that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.

In neither version is Jesus a victim, although it’s clear that he would have preferred things to have ended differently. John’s version, written a full generation later, with the benefit of hindsight and a longer lived experience of the Risen Christ, tells us that when Jesus’ soul was troubled, he nonetheless freely chose what he did not want, for love’s sake. If losing everything was what love required, then that was what he would do because that is why he came.

Now in case you’re wondering if your bishop has forgotten everything we’ve discussed in the past year about the need for rest, self-care, healthy boundaries, and Sabbath–be assured that I haven’t. But you know, the cross of Jesus doesn’t have much to say to us about those good and necessary things–except perhaps to be mindful of false crosses, or the ones that don’t belong to us (let that be a sermon for another time).

Nor does the cross convey its full power to us in those times when, as it says in the Serenity Prayer, we are called to change those things that lie within our power to change. No, the cross of Jesus, and Jesus on the cross, speaks to us most powerfuly in those times when we must face, as he did, the things that we cannot change; when we need spiritual strength not our own from which to live, and die, and rise again.

This past year I had the extraordinary experience of reconciling with two people I had deeply wounded in my younger years. The first was when my half-brother, who hadn’t spoken to me or any member of our family for over 20 years, did a very brave thing and showed up at his mother’s funeral in October. For a brief moment he allowed me and my sister back into his life. He’s since pulled away again, for reasons I don’t fully understand, but that’s okay. I’m still grateful for the time we shared, which gives me hope that healing in our family might one day be possible.

The second reconciliation has flowered into a new relationship with our godson, whom we met as a boy when Paul and I lived in Honduras over 30 years ago. and whom I failed twice. I can tell you that story someday if you like. But fast forward to last summer when we tracked him down via social media. Slowly we started communicating–first by text, then by telephone. Then we went to visit him in New York, where he’s lived, undocumented, for the last 16 years.

His life is hard in all the ways you can imagine–and yet he is rock solid in his life purpose, which to financially support two young nephews back in Honduras, whom he’s never met and perhaps never will, but nonetheless have depended on him for their livlihood since their mother, his half-sister, committed suicide. So our godson works nights cleaning a restaurant, to which he commutes over an hour and half each way by subway. He lives in a small room that he rents from a Mexican family. We talk or text almost every morning, as he is returning from work and I’m beginning my day. Como está, madrina? Espero que esté bien. Está tomando su cafecito?

The reason I’m telling you about him is that he has said to me more than once that if given the opportunity, he would gladly live his life all over again, just the way it was, without complaint. When I asked for his forgiveness, it was obvious that he had long since forgiven me. He is a man of grace and courage. His faith is quiet and strong. He knows why he’s here–he lives for love.

Don’t you want to live like that, with our godson’s capacity to love? Don’t you want to die with the grace of my friend’s mother? To be as faithful to your vows on the way up as on the way down?

I do, and this I know: I can’t be that person on my own. That’s why I’ve decided once again to follow Jesus, and why I will do my best to serve Him in whatever vocation I am given. Should every outward expression of my identity be taken from me, or when the time comes for me to let them go, I pray for the grace to persevere in love and gratitude for the gift of this life, lived under the power of his cross.

I’m grateful to walk the way of the cross with you.

A Prayer Practice for Holy Week

A Prayer Practice for Holy Week

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality of God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…
Philippians 2:5

As we approach Holy Week, I give thanks for all in our congregations preparing meaningful opportunities for prayer and reflection on the greatest of mysteries at the heart of our faith: Jesus’ suffering and death on a cross, and his resurrection from the dead. Please do not casually absent yourselves from these offerings–they can be occasions of profound spiritual encounter.

An insight from Richard Rohr has captured my imagination: “the Body of Christ is crucified and resurrected at the same time.” He writes of the anguishing suffering of the Ukrainian people “that we watch in real time from an unfair distance” and calls us to loving solidarity “to bear what is ours to carry.”1

We live inside these mysteries, personally and collectively, which is to say that we experience death and resurrection at the same time, too.

On Easter, with preachers everywhere, I’ll focus on the resurrection side of this dual reality. But first we ponder the cross, the price Jesus paid for love, and remember the times when we, like him, are called to empty ourselves for love’s sake.

The phrase “empty ourselves” has passive connotations, but it takes a lot of energy to let go of control. (In this, your bishop knows of what she speaks.) It is not an abdication of our responsibility to address the things that lie within our power to change, but rather a posture of profound acceptance of the things we would do anything to change if we could–but we can’t.

Jesus on the cross is there for us when we can’t see a way out of the mess we’re in, when life hits us with the full force of its cruelty, when there is no alternative but to go through the storm, through the fire, into the very hardship we tried so hard to avoid.

I’d like to share with you a simple practice that I learned from the Episcopal priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault at our most recent House of Bishops’ meeting. It has helped me call to mind my need to surrender to what I cannot control and open myself to grace when I need it most. It feels especially appropriate for Holy Week.

Bourgeault began with a word of encouragement: “Remember that hope and imagination flow out of the heart of Christ, that through him there is spiritual power available to us that gives life far greater compassion and coherence than we can muster on our own.”

She also named one of the demons we all face: “We are tired of living in bondage to fear. Perfect fear casts out love.” While it’s counter-intuitive, she said, the way to free ourselves from fear and reconnect with Christ’s love is to let go of whatever it is we’re holding onto so tightly.

She encouraged the gathered bishops to allow our bodies to lead the way. “Picture what happens inside your body when you’re angry, upset, or afraid.” We all felt our muscles tense, as we imagined closing in ourselves or lashing out, clenching our fist or our teeth.

“Now picture a posture of surrender and release.” We took a deep breath and felt our muscles relax. “Whenever that feeling of inner clenching or outward lashing comes upon you,” she said, “practice letting go. Practice self-surrender and allow grace to restore your equanimity–which is not the same as happiness. Equanimity is possible in deep pain and sorrow. It will allow you to act with integrity and freedom.”

More than once since that session, I’ve felt that familiar tensing up and the desire to do something to address whatever has knocked me off-center. The physical gestures of release, letting go and breathing deeply, helps me accept whatever it was that unsettled me, in order to be present to Christ and pray for clarity on how best to act, instead of react. I don’t do this perfectly, but perhaps that’s why it’s called spiritual practice.

On Palm Sunday we hear the words of the Apostle Paul: “Christ did not regard equality of God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself…” Emptiness is letting go of our grasp, letting the world have its way, trusting that God will bring good out of what we cannot.

With each acceptance of what we cannot change, we face a kind of death. But in Christ death always precedes life. “The losses that we thought surely would kill us are the losses that reorient our lives,” writes the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister. “What death ends, it also begins. Painfully, perhaps. Fearfully, often. But never without new challenges, new gifts, new opportunities. It’s when we shutter up the windows of our souls and hide behind yesterday that tomorrow never comes, no matter how long we live.”2

As you pray this Holy Week, consider visualizing your body when you’re holding on and letting go. As you do, ask yourself what might there be for you to let go of, accept or let die, so that, in God’s time, new life might arise and take flight.
1It Can’t Be Carried Alone by Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, April 6, 2022.
2Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief (Liguori/Triumph, 1999) pp.126-27