A Deep Breath

(Sermon for Sunday, January 15, 2012 || Epiphany 2B || 1 Samuel 1:1-20 )

People, including many of you, often ask me how I knew that God was calling me to be a priest. Here’s the story. This week ten years ago, I began the second semester of my freshman year of college. At that time, I was enrolled in a four-semester Humanities class that took a holistic approach to studying Western civilization. The second semester of the class moved from the end of the ancient world through the Middle Ages, so we began around the time of the fall of Rome. The first book we read was The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Now, many of my classmates couldn’t stand Augustine’s introspective, theological memoir, but for some reason, I couldn’t put the book down. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Augustine was teaching me to look deep within myself as he had done all those centuries ago. For me, this book turned out to be much more than an assignment in a four-semester Humanities class.

As I slowly, hesitantly began to look deep within, I began to notice a glowing ember. This ember was the source of the blaze that would become my heart’s fire, but at first the ember was nothing more than the tiniest of flames, the mustard seed of flames. With St. Augustine’s help, I caught sight of that tiny flame. And without realizing what I was doing, I took a deep breath, and when I exhaled, the Holy Spirit rode the wind of my breath into that ember. And the fire began – slowly, hesitantly – this fire that was my call to serve God as a priest in God’s church.

In today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture, the boy Samuel is fast asleep on the floor of the temple of the LORD. And God calls to him, “Samuel! Samuel!” This is Samuel’s own glowing ember, the first phase of his call.

The spark, the glimmer that St. Augustine made me aware of was Phase One of mine. Well, from God’s perspective, what I thought was Phase One was probably closer to Phase 23. But to me, the ember was just the beginning. By the end of my freshman year of college, I knew something was going on in the recesses of my being. I knew a flame had been kindled, but I didn’t know yet on what the flame was shedding light. However, if I had been alone, if I had been the only one to notice and nurture the glowing ember, I am convinced there would never have been a Phase Two.

Enter the Reverend Tom Ward, the chaplain at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Once a month for my entire sophomore year, I met with Tom Ward, and we just talked. We talked about my hopes and dreams, my fears and doubts, my past and future. And then one day – the day was so ordinary that I don’t even have a clear memory of the meeting – I told him about the glowing ember. I told him about reading St. Augustine and looking within and being surprised to find the glowing. And then, fully realizing what he was doing, Tom took a deep breath, and when he exhaled, the Holy Spirit rode the wind of his breath. And the fire spread out from my gut and into every corner of my being.

In today’s lesson, the boy Samuel is fast asleep on the floor of the temple of the LORD. And God calls to him, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel cries out, “Here I am!” And then he runs to Eli, the priest under whom he serves, thinking that Eli had called out to him. “I did not call; lie down again,” says a confused Eli. Samuel does so, but God calls again and then again. Each time, Samuel runs to Eli, thinking that Eli has called out to him. Finally, the third time, Eli realizes that the LORD has been the one calling out to Samuel. So Eli instructs his young charge: “If [God] calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’ ” Eli understands Samuel’s call, and Eli teaches Samuel how to respond to that call. Elis is Samuel’s Tom Ward, the mentor who teaches the student how to respond to God.

During my junior year of college, Tom Ward gathered a group of six people from the community of Sewanee to meet with me about the fire that God had kindled two years before. Every week, we met and shared stories about ourselves: not just me, but each of us sharing. Some stories had to do with God’s movement in our lives, others not, though you come to realize that every story has something to do with God’s movement. This group tested the fire, attempting to discern if the fire was from God. Through listening and sharing and praying, we decided God was in the flame.

In today’s lesson, Eli sends the boy Samuel back to his bed with a response to God. The LORD stands before Samuel and calls his name. Samuel responds, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The group that Tom Ward formed for my discernment taught me how to listen – how to listen to their voices and stories, and within them how to listen for the voice of God speaking God’s story for my life.

During my senior year of college, I went before a scary committee in the diocese of West Virginia. We talked through four one-hour meetings, and at the end of the day, they decided to recommend me for postulancy for Holy Orders. Two years of seminary later, I went before the same committee again, though they were less scary this time. We talked more, and at the end of the day, they recommended me for candidacy for Holy Orders. Six months later, the bishop of West Virginia ordained me to be a deacon. And six months after that, he ordained me to be a priest. Of course, discernment of God’s call is never over, so don’t take away from this that my call story ended that day in June, 2008.

Rather, reflect back on these stories I’ve been telling you these last few minutes. Notice how my story and Samuel’s story overlap. In neither case, can we classify these stories as just mine or just Samuel’s. These stories also belong to Eli and Tom Ward, to the group at Sewanee and the scary committee. And these stories belong to you, for you here at St. Stephen’s have always been a part of God’s call in my life. We just didn’t know that a decade ago.

Notice also that nothing in these stories is all that mysterious. Save for the glowing ember and God’s first call of “Samuel! Samuel!” every phase of these stories involves the simple act of talking with other people. God has built this need for conversation, for communion really, into the very fabric of God’s call in our lives. No call from God exists in solitary confinement. No call from God can ignite into full flame without many people blowing on the embers. We need each other to tease out and discover and nurture God’s call because God’s voice most often comes to us in the voices of other people. Why else would Samuel think Eli was calling to him over and over again?

When you are wondering what God might be calling you to, I offer you this guidance. Find a friend whom you trust more than you trust yourself. This person could be a parent or a spouse or another person whose soul is somehow mingled with yours. Ask this person these two simple questions:

“What do you think the world needs?”

and

“What do you think I’m good at?”

As you and your friend talk, listen to her words. At the same time, watch for the glowing ember deep within you. Sooner or later the answers to those two questions will intersect, and the ember will glow just a little bit brighter. And without realizing what you are doing, you will both take a deep breath, and when you exhale, the Holy Spirit will ride the wind of your collective breath and ignite a fire in your heart.

What are you looking for?

(Sermon for Sunday, January 16, 2011 || Epiphany 2, Year A || John 1:29-42)

The hospital was a maze. Children’s Medical Center had several buildings, and they were all connected somehow, but getting from one part of this building to another part of that building always involved multiple corridors and elevators. During the summer of 2006 between my first and second years of seminary, I was learning how to be a chaplain at this sprawling medical complex. One of the first things I learned was the hospital policy of refraining from giving directions to visitors. The hospital was just too confusing. Instead, if little Jimmy’s grandmother asked me how to get to the oncology unit, the hospital policy directed me to take her there myself and to make sure she knew her way back to the parking garage (which happened to be two elevators, three corridors, a skywalk, and two Starbucks away). In effect, hospital employees said, “Come and see” to their visitors and then accompanied them all the way to their destinations. These words – “Come and see” – make up Jesus’ second line of dialogue in the entire Gospel according to John. We’ll get to them in due time. But right now, let’s talk about Jesus’ first line of dialogue.

His first five words would not have been out of place in the labyrinthine hospital: “What are you looking for?” You might hear this question at any hospital elevator as any lost visitor stares helplessly at the building schematics printed on the wall. What are you looking for? Jesus speaks these words to two of John the Baptizer’s disciples after he notices them following him. At this point in the Gospel, Jesus has no followers of his own. He is the new guy in town. John the Baptizer owns the market on charismatic fellows who say compelling, challenging things. But John knows who Jesus is, so John encourages his disciples to begin following Jesus. Right away, Andrew and an unnamed person – quite literally – begin following Jesus.

When Jesus turns around and challenges them with his question –“What are you looking for?” – his words speak on two levels. This dual-layered dialogue is a common occurrence in the Gospel according to John. The first layer speaks to superficial, surface meaning. This layer is easy for Jesus’ listeners to access, and so they become drawn in. Then the second, deeper layer of meaning presents itself. Many of Jesus’ listeners resist this deeper level. But those who do dive deeply find rich, life-giving substance in his words.

With Jesus’ first words in the Gospel, he challenges Andrew, the unnamed disciple, and us to dive deeply to this second level of meaning. At the first level, John’s two disciples probably interpret Jesus’ question as a straightforward query into their present intentions. Do they happen to be going his way by chance or are they following him purposefully? But at the second level, Jesus’ five words penetrate to the deepest places of the human heart. What are you looking for? His question beckons an answer from those same deep places within us. The trouble is there are so many potential answers to this question that digging through them to find the ones that exist in those deep places can become problematic to say the least. Here’s what I mean.

What are you looking for?
A mid-sized sedan with good gas mileage and a high safety rating.
A doctor who understands my symptoms and actually seems to care for my wellbeing.
An assisted living facility for my parent whose mind is rapidly deteriorating.

What are you looking for?
The right greeting card to express my feelings.
A college that’s not too big but still has my major.
A quick hit to forget the day.

What are you looking for?
A boyfriend I can bring home to mom.
A scrap of meaning in a dead end job.
My car keys.

What are you looking for? John’s two disciples seem to understand that the “car key” type of answers will not suffice because Jesus’ words penetrate right into their hearts. So instead of answering his question, they ask one of their own: “Teacher, where are you staying?” Now, Jesus apparently does not hold a monopoly on dialogue with dual layers. At the first level, they want to know just what the question appears to ask: “In what house are you going to rest your head tonight?” But on that deeper second level, their question seeks a much more profound answer. Where are you staying? In Greek, the word that is translated as “staying” means quite a bit more than the English equivalent. Rather than the connotation of “staying at a hotel” or “staying on a friend’s futon,” the Greek word means to “abide” or to “continue to be present.” Thus, at the deeper level, the disciples ask Jesus where he dwells, where he abides, where he is present.

Their question, then, is the best response to Jesus’ own question. What are you looking for? Lord Jesus, I’m looking for where you abide. I’m looking for where you are present in my life. I’m looking for where you dwell in this particular situation I’ve gotten myself into.

When we receive Jesus’ question at the deeper second level, we can feel his words penetrating our hearts. We can hear his voice whispering up from the very depths of our beings: What are you looking for? Paying attention to his words rising from those depths helps us locate our own responses, the ones that originate in the same deep places of our beings. The transient, daily, car key type answers to the question fall away when we search deep within.

The best way to begin this search is with the disciples’ question: “Where are you staying?” When we ask this question, we open ourselves to finding Jesus dwelling somewhere in every facet of our lives. We open ourselves to hearing his voice whispering his presence into and out from our souls. We open ourselves, and in doing so, we turn the depths of our beings outward. The hidden deep places, where our responses to Jesus’ question lie dormant, become the pieces of ourselves that we display to the world. These pieces of ourselves are our callings from God. They are our personal, individual discoveries of Jesus beckoning us to find him in everything we do, in everything we say, and in everyone we meet.

And this brings us back to Jesus’ second line of dialogue in the Gospel according to John: “Come and see.” What are you looking for? Teacher, where are you staying? Come and see. Jesus invites us to see where he abides, where he is present in our lives. He invites us to dwell with him, no matter the situations we find ourselves in. Finding his presence means we have found those deep places within ourselves. Abiding in his presence gives us the grace to be vulnerable and to show the world the deepest yearnings that God has put in our hearts, the callings that God has blessed us to follow.

And the good news is this: “Come and see” means that Jesus will be with us, to take us where we need to go, to show us what we need to see. Just like the hospital employees accompanying a lost visitor to her destination, Jesus remains with us throughout our journeys. He dwells in our hearts whispering his question: “What are you looking for?” And when we ask him in return where he is staying, where he is abiding in our lives, he walks one step before us, saying, “Come and see.”

What Will I Become: A Decade with God’s Call

The following post appeared Saturday, January 8th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

John Lennon popularized the saying that life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. For followers of Jesus Christ, this isn’t entirely accurate. You see: God usually has plans for us that are fairly different from the ones that we have for ourselves. Our joy as followers of Christ happens when we listen for and then respond to God’s call in our lives. And so, to modify Lennon’s quotation: life is what happens to you when you’re busy allowing your plans to resonate with God’s.
Here’s a snapshot of three times over the last decade of my life that shows my movement from my plans to God’s, a movement that I assure you continues today. (And please, don’t misunderstand – just because God’s plan for me has so far been to become a priest, know that God’s call manifests in myriad other ways, as well.)

January 11, 2001

It is ten years ago, and I am really starting to think long and hard about what my life might look like as an adult. My senior year of high school is half over, and my college applications are finished. The days are approaching when I will hourly test the mailbox’s hinges hoping for a fat letter from Sewanee, my first choice college. The days are long gone when I dreamt of being a part-time firefighter and a part-time paleontologist. With my college letters soon to arrive at my house, it is high time to think about the future, the real future apart from the shiny red engines and dinosaurs’ fossils of childhood. And so, right before I turn eighteen, I type a few paragraphs entitled “What Will I Become?”

I believe that when a student enters his or her freshman year of college, he or she should be open to a vast array of new experiences. From my perspective, having my life planned the minute I graduate from high school is unhealthy. I am not saying that a student should not narrow his or her interests at all, but having a rigid path to walk can become detrimental.

As I prepare for my college education I have envisioned no less than four scenarios, one of which has only begun to fester in my brain. I know I would like to continue writing as I grow older, but I am practical and also know that very few writers succeed. Nevertheless, my first scenario is to major in English and hopefully have something published while I am still attending college. The second is to major in journalism and become a reporter; I would love to work for ESPN, but that is more of a dream than a reality. The third scenario is to go pre-law and attend law school. I have always been interested in the judicial process, but I am not sure I want to be a lawyer.

The fourth scenario, the one that is starting to fester in brain, is to double major in English and political science, and then perhaps still go to law school. I do not think I want to be a politician, but I would consider being someone linked to one. I am in the fledgling stages of an AP United States government class, and it absolutely fascinates me. This last scenario is beginning to excite me because it connects the other three. If I became a speechwriter or press secretary then I would have to use skills from all of my other loves. I would need the communication skills of a journalist, the writing skills of an English major, and the thought processes of a lawyer. […] I have narrowed my mindset some, but I will use the next few years to truly decide what I want to do with the rest of my life.

December 28, 2004

The acceptance letter comes and I pack up for Sewanee. Four years later, I am nearly done with the double major, though music composition has replaced English as one of the pair. Halfway through another senior year, I write again about what I will become, this time in response to an essay question on the application for Virginia Theological Seminary.

At the beginning of the second semester of my senior year of high school, I sat down at my computer and wrote out a list of possible career paths in an attempt to bring some focus to the new world that would soon open up to me. I called the list “What Will I Become?” and it included writer, journalist, lawyer, and speechwriter. With this exercise, I was trying to persuade myself that it was perfectly acceptable not to have my future planned out before I went to college. The piece concluded with this sentence, “I have narrowed my mindset some, but I will use the next few years to truly decide what I want to do with the rest of my life.” A year later, my entire perspective changed.

I was taking a humanities class the second semester of my freshman year at Sewanee, and we read the Confessions of Saint Augustine. I was truly struck by Augustine’s attempt to look back over his whole life and search for God’s movement in it; indeed, the text is one long introspective prayer. Heartened by Augustine’s example, I tentatively began to look inside myself. Over the course of the semester, “what do I want to do with the rest of my life” became “what does God want me to do with the rest of my life.” With this new paradigm, my heart and mind became open to new possibilities—or to what I thought were new possibilities. Upon further reflection, I have discovered that this new and exciting avenue, becoming a priest, is actually the earliest path open to me that I had ignored for years.

You see, my father graduated from seminary when I was six years old, and I grew up in the church. I was never the stereotypical rebellious priest’s kid; on the contrary, I always went to services, but for the first seventeen years of my life, the Word and the liturgy failed to move me. I went to church, I was baptized, I was confirmed. I believed in God through the borrowed faith of my parents. But my own faith was still nascent. The church has caused my family intense pain and overwhelming joy, and throughout my early teenage years I was always on guard in church because the painful times were ever so much more vivid in my mind. I would not allow myself to be hurt again, would not allow myself to become vulnerable; therefore, I would not allow myself to love. People would jokingly ask me if I was “going to follow in my father’s footsteps.” Heck no, I always thought, I know what he has to put up with. The pain that kept my faith locked away also kept me from seeing my true calling.

However, on a Sunday morning in October of 2000, something miraculous happened, something that I have been trying to put into words ever since. But mere words are inadequate when the power of the Living God becomes involved. To put it the best I can, I had a moment with God, in which I felt connected to both the enormity of God’s movement in the world and the intimacy of an intense feeling of personal love…. A little over a year later, with Saint Augustine’s example newly in my mind and this transforming experience of God’s love still reforming my heart, I discerned that I was called to the path that has always been only one step away.

December 3, 2007

Another acceptance letter comes, and I attend seminary. Three years later, during my final senior year, I write again about what I will become, this time within a fortnight of the event when “What will I be” will turn into the “What I am.”

A few weeks ago, I decided to try on the outfit I am planning to wear to my ordination. I unzipped the suit bag and laid out the trousers and jacket. I put on my brand new (quite stiff, still) clergy shirt and collar. Then I added the suit, shoes, and belt. As I approached the mirror, I hesitated. I wasn’t sure who I would see looking back at me. A hand, then an arm, then my body appeared in the reflection. I looked me up and down. I folded my hands. I tried to raise one eyebrow and failed. I unbuttoned the jacket and stuck my hands in my pockets. I smiled. There I am, I thought.

As I approached the mirror, I was afraid that I would not see the me I have always been because I was decked out in the attire of the me I am becoming. But as I assumed a stance, a gesture, a facial expression that are uniquely mine, I realized that the mere trappings of the calling to which I have responded will not override the me that continues to respond to the call. When God called me to the ordained life, God called me. God called a person with both gifts and limitations, both experience and baggage. As I looked at my reflection, I did not see a necessarily better me, but the me that shows outwardly my striving to accept God’s call.

As I thought that, I felt my gut twinge with the same feeling I used to have when a fly ball was hit to me in center field. Go and catch it, my gut used to say. Now it says, Look at the way God has moved in your life. Now what are you going to do about it? In many of the places in the bible where our new translations use the word “heart,” the text really says “gut.” In my gut, I know I am called to serve God because I get that same feeling when I contemplate my future. In my gut, I sense the utter enormity of the One I am called to serve. In that deep place, at the very core of my being, I know that the me I am and the me I am becoming are both the me that God has called. Indeed, God’s call created the me I am.

Today

Three more years, the first three of my ordained life come and go. I sit at my computer reading the words I wrote over the past ten years, and I hear echoes of the person I used to be, echoes that somehow became solid, sunk down into my soul, and now fortify the call that God continues to breathe into my life. Another decade spans out ahead of me: marriage in less than two months, a parish in which to serve God, a PhD, followed, perhaps, by a post helping students learn the art of preaching. Some of these surely are part of God’s plan for me, but, even so, I must not allow my plans to become idols that pull me away from God. I must continue to listen and strive to resonate with God’s call. And I must keep myself open to all of God’s glorious possibilities by wondering: what will I become tomorrow?

Competing for spots in my imagination

The day before I returned to VTS for my senior year, I went searching for something in the cupboard under the stairs. The light flickered and hiccupped, casting faint shadows on the cramped, box-strewn floor. The winter coats and old military uniforms brushed me heavily like a gas station carwash. I pulled and pushed boxes of books and elementary school projects out of the way. With a dozen or so boxes disgorged from the closet, I found what I was looking for. Three plastic tubs. Three dusty plastic tubs, each nearly two decades old. I carried them into the living room and lined them up. I slit the packing tape off the first one, opened it, and was met with piles of my childhood.

I began sifting through the legos, pulling out flat black and grey pieces and every human figurine I could lay my hands on. After several hours of collecting, lego pieces littered my living room floor like an abstract mosaic. I fitted the black and grey pieces into a grid and sorted the figurines into groups—knights and pirates, naval personnel and more knights. Another hour and my creation was finished: a lego chess set, complete with knights on horseback and kings in mail and helm.

I spent every rainy day of my childhood and some of the sunny ones building with legos. For many years, I followed the instructions meticulously: each piece went in its place, and when I was finished, I had duplicated the image on the box in three dimensions. At some unidentified point after I had hit double-digits in age, I began straying from the directions. Eventually, the sets I kept prison-like in their own boxes began to mingle. Soon, I had three plastic tubs (they were neither old nor dusty yet) piled high with anachronistic castle legos and futuristic space legos and realistic city legos, all together, all competing for spots in my imagination. I put the directions away and just began to build, to create.

Until the day before returning to seminary, I had not created anything with legos in nearly a decade. But the act of creating infused me with joy. I created videos in high school. I created music in college. And as I began to contemplate God’s movement in my life, I accepted God’s invitation to enter more fully into God’s creation.

Thinking about the call to serve God might prompt one to ask the question: why was I created? But I think this is a faulty question. To reach a better understanding of call, the question should be asked in the present tense: for what am I being created? God’s call in my life is a continuously present reality, always pushing my self-defined limits of possibility. The very act of calling assumes an act of creation, for accepting a call is simply the acknowledgment that God is already at work molding me into a better servant, a better giver, a better lover. I think this is why Paul says that whoever is in Christ is a new creation—new creations that are ever new because of constant and continual creating.

I believe that God has barely begun to create me. This thought comforts me when I realize how much I still have to learn and chastens me when I think I have everything figured out. I have perceived enough of the edge of the expanse that is the life with which God has challenged and blessed me to know that only with God’s help can I respond to God’s call. This call in me is nascent; I am still being formed, still being created. But God has known me since I was in my mother’s womb. Christ is with me until the end of the age. And the Holy Spirit moves my life, always pushing those limits of possibility. I hope that through God’s love and grace, the work God has begun in me is a good one. I hope I can respond to God with a reflection of that love and grace. I hope I continue to catch glimpses of God’s creating movement in my life.

God has invited me to participate in God’s creation. I can comprehend nothing so joyful, nothing so humbling as this. Those three old dusty plastic tubs are back in the cupboard under the stairs. The flickering light is off and the winter coats hang undisturbed. But I am still creating because God is creating me.

(This post originally appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of “The Call” newsletter of the Society for the Increase of the Ministry (SIM), a not-for-profit group that supports Episcopal Seminarians as they move from lay to ordained leadership in the Church. I thank God for this organization, and I thank SIM for generously supporting me, both in prayer and scholarships. Check out SIM’s website.)