The Call and the Gift

(Sermon for Sunday, May 5, 2013 || Easter 6C || John 5:1-19)

I have some really exciting news that I’ve just been bursting to tell you. Last Monday, I became an uncle. I wasn’t an uncle, and then my sister-in-law had her baby boy, and now I’m an uncle! But since I played absolutely no part in the whole “becoming an uncle thing,” let me talk a little more about the actual players in this little slice of joy, my nephew Connor and his parents, Bethany and Steve.

cwsbaby(featured)Bethany labored to birth Connor on Sunday and Monday, and he entered the world Monday afternoon, just under eight pounds of radiant, new life: squishy elbows and beating heart and astonishingly alert eyes. I’m sure there were moments during delivery when Bethany was certain she couldn’t do it, that one more push was out of the question, that one more contraction would send her over the edge. But then she did do it, and her son was placed in her welcoming arms.

I’m sure that in the weeks and months to come, Bethany and Steve will spend many a night awake trying to sooth the baby who will seem to be crying for no apparent reason, considering they will have sated all his immediate needs. They will be strung out, exhausted, ready to fall asleep in the next morning’s bowl of cereal. They will wonder if they can function on 45 minutes of sleep and then they will do it all again the next night. And the one after that.

I’m sure that at some point in his childhood, Connor will break his arm climbing a tree or get an infection that will send him and his distraught parents to the Emergency Room. That kind of thing happens to everyone, but in the moment, Bethany and Steve will be frantic and all kinds of worst-case scenarios will run through their minds. But then Connor’s fever will break or he’ll emerge with a cast ready for signatures, and his parents will breathe a prayer of silent relief for having come through the ordeal.

Notice a pattern here. On the day of Connor’s delivery, Bethany went to the point of no return. And then she returned with a babe in her arms. In the future eventualities of sleepless nights and hospital visits, Bethany and Steve will be at the ends of their ropes, and yet they will keep climbing and they will find more rope. How can I be so sure that they will find more rope? Because I believe God called them to the sacred ministry of parenthood. And when God calls one of us to serve, God always provides us with the gifts that we need to fulfill our callings.

In the delivery room Bethany discovered God’s gift of perseverance and more determination than she ever thought she possessed. God called her to motherhood and then gave her the gifts she needed to make the calling hers. As she grows in this ministry, she will continue to discover new gifts as she faces new challenges as a mother. The same thing happens to us when we accept God’s call in our lives. The call and the gifts to achieve the call go hand in hand. To use a political metaphor, God doesn’t believe in the unfunded mandate.

If you need more convincing, check out this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to John. Jesus arrives at the pool of Beth-Zatha and finds there a man who is waiting his turn to go down into the pool. The popular belief was that when the water was stirred up, from some underground source presumably, the first person to enter the pool would be healed of any affliction. The man had been paralyzed for 38 years; can you image – 38 years of coming to this pool only to be stymied by people who could beat him to the water, 38 years of dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams, all drained into a morass of hardened isolation. 38 years of paralysis; just think, if this encounter were happening today, the man would have become paralyzed while Gerald Ford was president and I wouldn’t be a twinkle in my mother’s eye for quite some time.

To this downtrodden, lonely soul, Jesus comes, and Jesus asks him a question: “Do you want to be made well?” The answer seems obvious. “YES” is what you’d expect. But this man seems to have a well-worn speech ready for whenever anyone approaches him, no matter what they say. “I have no one to put me in the water and when I’m trying to get over there, someone always gets ahead of me,” he says.

Jesus takes this response as a “yes.” And then Jesus just skips all the preliminaries. He doesn’t tell the man his faith has made him well. He doesn’t touch him. He doesn’t pray. Jesus simply commands the paralyzed man to stand up, take his mat, and walk. Jesus calls this man to do something he is absolutely and without a doubt unable to do.

I imagine the man gives Jesus an incredulous look, perhaps a raised eyebrow. A hollow chuckle. Who does this guy think he is, the man wonders? But Jesus’ words ring in the air, strong and solid and shimmering. The man looks up and sees Jesus staring down at him, and he realizes that Jesus is serious. What if? What if I don’t need the pool? What if this is my chance?

He pokes his leg with his finger. No sensation. He tries to wiggle his toes. Nothing. But Jesus’ call to stand up is still ringing in the air, and now the words fall to earth, fall into the heart of the paralyzed man. No more poking. No more wiggling. He reaches up and grasps Jesus’ arm and pulls himself up. He can stand. He can walk.

Somewhere between Jesus’ call and the man’s standing, Jesus gives him the gift of the ability to heed the call. The healing happens in order that the man can obey Jesus’ command. Like I said, God doesn’t believe in unfunded mandates. Jesus tells the man to stand up. But he hasn’t stood in 38 years. And then he does because the call carried with it the gift to accomplish it. He realized Jesus had blessed him with the gift when he used it to stand up.

God called Bethany and Steve to be new parents. And I believe God will give them all the gifts they need to raise Connor to be the child God calls him to be. Jesus called the paralyzed man to stand and gave him the gift to do so. I wonder what God is calling you to do? I wonder what God is calling you to be? How many of us hear God’s call but then shy away from it because we assume we aren’t good enough to accomplish it or we don’t have the necessary gifts to do it?

This story of the man by the pool teaches us that God never issues a call without dispersing the gifts that accompany it. In fact, God calls us to certain things specifically so we can discover our giftedness.

So the next time you pray, I invite you to ask God what God is calling you to do or be. For the duration of the prayer, ignore both the seeming impossibility of the call and your utter inadequacy to accomplish it. Just sit in silence with God, listening to the call ringing in the air, strong and solid and shimmering. And then, like the paralyzed man, stand up, take your mat, and walk. Say “yes” to God. And discover all of the gifts that God has been bursting to shower upon you.

Do You Love Me?

(NOTE: I completely forgot to post my sermon on Sunday, so here it is, two days belated. Devo180 will be back tomorrow.)

(Sermon for Sunday, April 14, 2013 || Easter 3C || John 21:1-19)

I can only imagine the maelstrom of thoughts roiling in Simon Peter’s head in the weeks following Jesus’ resurrection. At the last supper, he promised Jesus: “I will lay down my life for you.” He was willing to draw blood when they came to arrest Jesus in the garden. He followed Jesus all the way to the gate of the high priest’s house. And then everything fell apart. People began recognizing him and he felt afraid and in his fear he did something he never dreamed he would do, not even in his worst nightmare.

But this was worse than his worst nightmare. “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” I am not. “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” No. “You are one of his disciples.” I am not. And at that moment the rooster crowed, signaling the dawn. But Simon Peter remained in the night with his denial – afraid, ashamed, broken. The nickname Simon received from Jesus when they first met – the nickname Peter, “Rock” – must have haunted him from that moment on. How could a rock be so inconstant? He was supposed to be steadfast, strong; but in the moment of decision, he crumbled. As I said, I can only imagine the maelstrom of thoughts roiling in Simon Peter’s head in the weeks following Jesus’ resurrection.

So to quiet the storm raging within, even for just a short time, it makes sense for Peter to suggest a fishing trip – something normal to take his mind off things. He and his friends fish all night but catch nothing. Even though Peter has met the Risen Christ, Peter himself is still shackled to the night, where his shame and fear have kept him since his denial. No wonder he didn’t catch any fish. But then day breaks, and Jesus calls to him from the beach. He and his friends let down the net one more time and catch more fish than they know what to do with.

They bring the catch ashore and have breakfast around a charcoal fire with Jesus. Peter gazes into the flames, and suddenly his maelstrom of thoughts transports him back to another charcoal fire, around which he warmed himself – and denied his Lord. He is still lost in the night of his regret, his fear, and his brokenness. Though a new dawn has come, Peter cannot bring himself to step into the light. He sits around the fire with Jesus and the rest, but he himself is far away, reliving the nightmare.

And so when Jesus says his name, Simon Peter flinches out of his daydream and returns to the present. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks him. Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. “Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. “Do you love me?” And with the third question, a wave of sadness washes over Simon Peter because he realizes what Jesus is doing. The sadness is the echo of the nightmare, the last vestige of the darkness Peter has been mired in. Lord, you know everything (including my shame and my guilt and my brokenness); and you know that I love you.

Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to affirm their relationship three times, once for each denial; and with that, they are reconciled. Peter’s love for his Lord trumps his fear and his brokenness, and he finally steps from the night into the day. This reconciliation shines with the good news of the resurrection. The Risen Christ meets Peter in his brokenness and reaffirms their relationship. The Risen Christ meets us in the same place – in our fear and our brokenness – and affirms that nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate us from his love.

sheepBut Jesus is only half done with Peter and with us, because Jesus takes this reconciliation one step further. Jesus doesn’t just heal Peter’s brokenness and leave it at that. If he had, then Peter would have no direction to travel, nowhere to bring his healed heart. So Jesus renews their relationship and then gives Peter a mission. “Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.”

Jesus knows that Peter, despite his nickname, has shown inconstancy in the past. Jesus knows that Peter once crumbled because of fear. Jesus knows that Peter isn’t perfect. And still, Jesus affirms their relationship, binds himself to Peter in love, and gives him a mission. The Risen Christ gathers to himself all of Peter’s fear and brokenness and says, “This stuff will not hold you back from doing my work. This stuff may rear its head from time to time, but it will not win. This stuff is now mine, and in its place you can have my love and the promise of eternal relationship with me.”

Sounds like a pretty good deal. Imagine someone coming up to you and saying, “You give me all your junk, everything about yourself that you don’t like or you don’t want, and I’ll give you the most precious thing in the world.”

That’s what Jesus did on the beach with Peter after breakfast. And in the power of the resurrection, that’s what Jesus does with each of us. And after we make such an unbalanced trade, Jesus invites us to join him in a mission. Feed. Tend. Listen. Support. Help. Love. Serve.

If we listen for the Risen Christ’s call in our lives, we will each hear something a little different because Jesus knows what sets each of our hearts on fire. And Jesus knows where the world most needs us to serve. He combines the two and then sails these unique calls to us on the wind of the Holy Spirit. And if we listen for that wind whispering in our hearts, we will hear the call. Peter heard the call to feed God’s sheep. I hear the call to proclaim God’s presence in our lives. What do you hear? What is Jesus healing you to do?

In our story today, Jesus heals Peter with love. This love propels Peter into service. And this service brings healing to all of God’s people. And thus the cycle renews. On down through the ages, God has propelled this cycle of healing, loving, and serving. Now we are the inheritors of the legacy of this chat on the beach after breakfast. The Risen Christ sits with us across our kitchen counters after a bowl of oatmeal – the most ordinary of moments, mind you – and offers us his love, his healing, and his mission.

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then notice me healing your brokenness.

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then feel my love binding us together.

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then go out and serve in my name.

The Seeds of the Kingdom

(Sermon for Sunday, June 17, 2012 || Proper 6B || Mark 4:26-34)

When I was nine or ten years old, I walked into the church across the street from our house really early on a particular morning. Ash Wednesday had always been one of my favorite days. I’m not sure why, but I think I liked going to school with the ashes scraped across my forehead – hence me being in church really early. As many of you know, my father is also a priest, and he met me in the church wearing all of his vestments. But no one else came for the service early that morning. However, as Jesus says, “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” So we went ahead with the service, just my dad and me.

When the time came for the ashes, he put his thumb in the gritty, black stuff and scraped first a vertical and then a horizontal line across my forehead, making the sign of the cross. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” he said. Then he knelt down and offered the little bowl with the ashes to me. I was surprised, but I put my own thumb in the gritty, black stuff and scraped the sign of the cross on his forehead. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” I echoed with all the solemnity that my fourth-grade voice could muster.

Then we finished the service, he took me to school, and we went about our days, and we went about our lives. And about a decade later, my father and I realized that on that Ash Wednesday morning, God planted a seed in me, one so small that neither of us noticed the seed until the stalk started poking through the topsoil of my life.

This seed was the mustard seed of God’s kingdom, the one that Jesus talks about in today’s parable from Mark’s account of the Gospel. Before we go any further, however, I want to dispel any notion that you may have that such a seed would only be planted in someone destined to be ordained as a priest. While some of the seeds of the kingdom that God planted in my life have germinated into my call to the priesthood, others have grown into my call to be Leah’s husband and to spread God’s love through our marriage. I hope other seeds that are still hidden in the soil will sprout into a call to parenthood. God sows within each of us, not just we few who wear the collar, the seeds that grow into a panoply of kingdom callings. Together, as our seeds stretch upwards into beautiful flowers and trees, we help God transform this planet once again into a garden of God’s kingdom.

I firmly believe that God has sown seeds so wildly, so expansively, that every person on this planet has the seeds of the kingdom nestled in the soil of their souls. The parable before the ones we heard this morning speaks to this belief. The sower doesn’t seem to mind that his seed lands, not just on the good soil, but on the road and on the rocky ground and among the thorns, as well. The sower doesn’t just plant in nice furrows in the prepared field, but across every surface, no matter how ready the ground is to receive the seed.

Because of God’s unrestrained scattering of seed, each of us surely has the seeds of the kingdom within us. But, as Jesus says, the seeds start out so small that we can barely see them. In fact, until the seeds have grown into visible plants, we won’t have much luck seeing them at all. But this is how the life of faith works – oftentimes, the moments when the seeds of the kingdom drop into our soil are as small as the seeds themselves. We miss these moments all too easily because they tend to be subtle and quiet. Or they tend to happen in the midst of really difficult and challenging circumstances. Or they tend to happen when we least expect them, when our soil is least ready for the seeds.

With God’s help, we can train ourselves to notice the seeds of the kingdom earlier and earlier in their development. Perhaps, you have a mustard seed that has grown into the full-fledged plant or perhaps you have a stalk peaking up from the ground. Move into a space of prayerful reflection and trace that plant back to the subtle, quiet moment when God scattered the seed in you.

Consider this example. God has given you the gift of teaching. Even though some of the students can be pains in the neck, you love going into the classroom everyday to teach. You feel that teaching is certainly a way that you respond to God’s call. Now, work your way back past your first year struggles, past your student teaching, past your high school days, and find yourself back in fifth grade when your favorite teacher in the whole wide world instilled in you a love of learning and a desire to teach. There’s the seed. God used the dedication and love of your fifth-grade teacher to plant the seed of the kingdom in you.

Here’s another example. God has given you the gift of cooking. Recently, you began helping at your church to prepare hundreds of meals every week for a local homeless shelter. You can feel in each stir of the pasta and each pour of the sauce that you are doing something in which God takes great joy. Now, work your way back past your joining the church, past all those experiments in the kitchen trying to perfect your pie dough, past that semester at culinary school, and find yourself in the kitchen with your mother on the day she finally let you spice her world famous chili for the first time. There’s the seed. God used your relationship with your mother, who passed on her culinary secrets to you, to plant the seed of the kingdom in you.

No matter how old or young we are now, God has planted seeds in us. Some have grown into the greatest of shrubs and the birds nest in their branches. These are the places where we can see God’s kingdom blooming into beautiful gardens around and within us. Other seeds are still nascent, still tucked in the soil waiting for the right moments to start their journey toward the sun. By tracing the plants we can see back to when they were invisible seeds, we can train ourselves to recognize the currently hidden seeds even sooner in their development. And when we do, we can join God in more active participation of their cultivation.

Every week in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom begins as tiny mustard seeds, which God scatters wildly into our very souls. As we live out our lives as followers of Jesus Christ, we become gardens of the kingdom, spreading the beauty of God wherever we go. The seeds are in each of us. The seeds are sprouting and growing and blooming each day. All we need do is notice.

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.

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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.)