The Glow

Sermon for Sunday, September 28, 2014 || Proper 21A || Philippians 2:1-13

TheGlowI started writing this sermon at 5:30 in the morning last Wednesday. I was sitting on the floor in the living room with my eight-week old son sleeping fitfully on my lap. In the minutes preceding opening my laptop to write, I gave him a bottle in the stillness and darkness of the hour before dawn. Just enough light drifted in from the kitchen that I could see his face in the darkness. He was looking at me intently as he sucked down the bottle. I gazed back at him, and that’s when I felt it. I felt this impenetrable feeling of rightness, of completion. I felt “the glow.”

That’s what I call it, at least: “The Glow.” For going on a dozen years or so, this has been my dominant metaphor for my sense of connection – of resonance – with God’s movement in my life. The Glow is my name for what Paul describes in the final verse from our Philippians reading this morning. Paul says, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” So today, I’d like to share a few stories about The Glow with you.

I had been at my previous church, St. Stephen’s, for a little over a year when I received a phone call from the rector of one of the biggest Episcopal churches in the country. He wanted me to interview for one of his associate’s positions, a position that promised much higher salary, more opportunity for advancement, and the prestige of working at a church the size of a small diocese. Believe me when I tell you, I was star struck. His invitation stoked my age-old enemy – my pride – and I started constructing a new narrative for myself, in which I basked in the glory of this vaunted position.

Leah and I went for a weekend visit and interview. We met with various groups of people, all friendly and energetic. We toured the buildings of the church, all massive and modern. For the first few days of the trip, I knew intellectually that, on paper, this was a great opportunity for us. And yet something was holding me back. On the day before we were scheduled to fly back to Massachusetts, I had lunch with the wardens and the treasurer. They asked me questions. I responded. And I just kept talking about St. Stephen’s – about the wonder of Godly Play, about the fact that the youth group was getting off the ground, about all the fantastic things we were doing and planning to do.

That’s when I felt it: The Glow. Whenever I mentioned St. Stephen’s during that lunch, I could feel this glowing ball of light expanding within me, radiating from my chest. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. Needless to say, I removed myself from that search process the next day. At that lunch, God was at work in me, enabling me to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. The Glow, this sense of spiritual rightness, propelled me to stay at St. Stephen’s, and I’m ever so glad I had three more wonderful years of ministry there.

But the Glow is not always so readily instructive. I have wanted to marry two women in my life. One of them I did marry, thanks be to God, and she is radiance, far greater than glow. The other I met in college. We dated for a little less than two years starting at the beginning of my senior year. I remember distinctly during our first year together that I prayed for her every night, I thought about her all the time, and whenever I did I felt the sense of rightness. I felt God blessing our relationship. I felt the Glow.

Then, slowly yet interminably, things took a turn. The distance was taking its toll. We weren’t as close as we once had been. The “I love you’s” were fewer and farther between. But I persisted stubbornly in feeling the Glow. I convinced myself that everything would be better once we were engaged. Thankfully, she was a stronger person that I was. On an incredibly painful night in May 2006 she ended our relationship.

Months later, I was journaling when I realized something about the Glow. Something frightening. The Glow can be manufactured. That’s the trouble with relying on yourself alone to discern God working within you. For those last few fairly dismal months of our relationship, I didn’t actually feel the Glow. Instead, I remembered feeling it. I forced myself to recall its warmth and light from an earlier time when it was really and truly present. I didn’t want the relationship to end, so I tricked myself into feeling the echo of the Glow. God was still at work in me even then, but I ignored what God was actually saying to me in favor of what God had said to me in the past.

So sometimes the Glow burns bright and strong and immediate, and there’s no mistaking the direction God is leading us. Other times, we know just what we want (no matter how God might be prompting us), and so we manufacture a feeling of rightness in order to sanction our disobedience.

And this is where the Glow emerges from the interior of the individual and mixes with the light of the community, thereby creating something of a safeguard against our own confused desires. About this time last year, another job prospect came along. I had been at St. Stephen’s nearly four years, and while I still felt the Glow ministering there, I also knew that God was inviting me to seek new challenges.

I arrived at St. Mark’s in the middle of a Friday afternoon to meet with the search committee. The first person I encountered was Angie Robinson. Now, there are people out there who just seem to glow all the time. Angie is one of them. Angie’s natural shining stirred the Glow in me. We couldn’t use the Undercroft because of the D.A.R. tea the next day, so I helped Angie move the tables to another room, and in so doing, made a lifelong friend. The Glow grew as I met more people and as the possibility of joining you here at St. Mark’s became more and more real. But the Glow would not have ignited in me if it had not also ignited in you. The Glow was mirrored between us, this sense of the rightness of God calling us together.

As the Apostle Paul asserts, God is at work in us, enabling us to will at to work for God’s good pleasure. We participate in God’s work when we recognize God’s movement in our lives and we resonate with it. I call this the Glow. I wonder what you call it? This week, I invite you to think and pray about how you describe resonating with the God who is at work in you. What words or images do you attach to this resonance? What is your version of the Glow? How do you separate a true feeling of spiritual rightness from a manufactured one? What role do other people play in your discernment of God’s call in your life?

God calls each of us to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. This is the true purpose of life. And God is at work in each of us, breathing on the embers of the Glow so that it is ready to flare up when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.* So look within and see how God is working in you. Look around and see where God yearns for you to serve. And then…Glow.

* A paraphrase of Frederick Buechner’s famous line about vocation from his fabulous Wishful Thinking.

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.

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?”


“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.

Hear my voice

(Sermon for April 25, 2010 || Easter 4, Year C, RCL || John 10:22-30)

I’m sure we can all agree that making a real audible connection with Jesus is difficult. After all, our Lord ascended into heaven one thousand nine hundred and seventy-seven years ago, give or take. You can’t download his parables off of iTunes. You can’t watch the Sermon on the Mount on Youtube. You can’t get a podcast of the Last Supper. As Judas sings at the end of Jesus Christ Superstar: “If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation. Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”

Dr. Horrible is only a few weeks away from a "real audible connection" with his crush, Penny.

With no way to make that real audible connection with Jesus, we might be tempted to disregard this morning’s Gospel as an antiquated relic of Jesus’ own time. In the verses preceding our lesson, John records Jesus discussing his identity as the good shepherd who takes care of the sheep. Then, in today’s reading, Jesus returns to that image when he tells his opponents, “My sheep hear my voice.” The fact that you got out of bed this morning and decided to come to church tells me that on some level you identify as a member of Jesus’ flock. So, with no person to speak or recording to play, how do we, his sheep, hear Jesus’ voice? How do we listen to someone who lived nineteen centuries ago and who inhabited the other side of the world and who spoke a language that no longer exists?

All those barriers notwithstanding, we sheep still hear Jesus’ voice. We hear his voice in myriad ways, too many to list exhaustively during this sermon. We especially hear Jesus speak to us from within ourselves, from the collective voice of the community, and from the prayerful reading of his words in the Gospel.

Let’s begin with the reading of scripture. Did you know that in the ancient world in which the Bible was written, there was no such thing as silent reading? People read aloud even when they were alone. The Book of Acts presents a clear example of this. Philip is walking along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza when he happens upon an Ethiopian eunuch reading the prophet Isaiah. How does Philip know he’s reading Isaiah? Right – because the eunuch is reading out loud to himself. Now, we all grew up with elementary school teachers giving us cross looks if we accidentally began reading aloud when we were supposed to be reading silently. I also imagine that if I began reading my novel out loud on the T, I might engender some strong negative reactions.

Obviously, our culture no longer subscribes to the ancient practice of reading everything out loud. But in our efforts to be the sheep who hear Jesus’ voice, I invite you to attempt this practice. Read the Gospel slowly, prayerfully, carefully, and audibly. Listen to the sound of your own voice speaking the words of Jesus:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Hear the voice of Jesus welling up from within you. Feel your mouth and tongue and breath work in concert to form those life-giving words. When you encounter a particular verse or passage that strikes you, don’t rush through the words. Sit with them. Say them aloud and hear Jesus speaking through you to you. Make those words your breath prayer. Practice making the voice of Christ the first thing that comes to your own lips in idle moments and joyful moments and fearful moments. As Paul says to the church in Colossae, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” We sheep hear Jesus’ voice in the words of scripture when we attend to them and attune to them and orient our lives around them.

This orientation continues in our own interior lives, which is the next setting for hearing the voice of Christ. At the outset of his own trek through the inward life, St. Augustine says, “My God, I would have no being, I would not have any existence, unless you were in me. Or rather, I would have no being if I were not in you.” Because we are in God and God somehow dwells within us, we can access the voice of Jesus within ourselves.

Most often, we are too distracted by external stimuli to attend to this voice. And when we manage to find grace enough to silence the outward bombardment, we still must contend with the chattering voice of our own selfish desire. This seductive voice constantly eats away at us, eroding us with whatever idols happen to be fashionable this season. But underneath the artillery and the idolatry, another voice speaks. This is the voice of Jesus speaking softly enough that we have to strain to hear. And everyone knows that when you have to strain to hear, you must be listening.

This internal voice of Jesus is the same “still, small voice” that Elijah hears on the mountain after the wind and the earthquake and the fire pass by. This is the same voice that the psalmist hears when God says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” The voice of Jesus speaks truth into our souls every moment of every day, and every once in a great while, we might happen to stop and hear that truth.

I remember a time in my life in which each day, I asked God if I was in the right relationship. And each day, I felt the resonance in my chest of a deep and abiding, “Yes.” Then, on a day of no particular consequence, the resonance disappeared. But rather than paying attention to the change, I forced myself to remember what the voice sounded like. And for months, I lied to myself rather than making the effort to listen to Christ’s voice within me. When the relationship ended, I was shocked, although I had no right to be. The voice of Jesus had been preparing me for that outcome. The still, small voice speaks to us continually. All we need do is listen.

We sheep hear Jesus’ voice in our inner selves, but without that voice also speaking to us from a loving community, the dialogue is incomplete. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” says Paul, and he continues, “Teach and admonish one another with all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing…songs to God.” Without this conversation, this communion, with one another, we struggle to discern the voice of Jesus in our lives. God calls each one of us to ministry both within the church and in our lives outside these walls. The voice of the community and the internal voice within each of us coalesce to form our calls to serve God.

We will reaffirm our baptismal promises in a few minutes. One promise asks, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” When we answer, “I will, with God’s help,” we signal our willingness to listen to the voice of Jesus speaking through one another. If we are able to sublimate the chattering voices of our own selfish desire, then each still, small voice within us can join with the next, creating the voice of Jesus in the community. When we share in one another’s lives, when we take the time to know one another on deep, personal levels, we more readily serve as vessels for the voice of Christ to each other.

Christ’s voice in the Gospel forms and guides the other two voices – the interior voice and the voice of the community. Working together, this threefold voice of Jesus speaks to us across the barriers of time and distance and language. Jesus proclaims, “My sheep hear my voice.” This statement is both a declaration and a hope. As we struggle with our flurries of distractions and entanglements both externally and internally, I pray that we each find the grace to take seriously these words of Jesus: “My sheep hear my voice.” We are his sheep. I hear Jesus’ voice calling each of us to serve one another in love and reach out with healing arms to a broken world. What do you hear?

Guillotine (Davies Tales #5)

“Step outside with me a minute.”

Aiden Davies looked up from tracing patterns in the Oriental rug. The priest gestured to the patio door. Davies stood up, smoothed his jacket, and walked outside.

Twenty-four hours earlier, he had boarded a plane in Nashville. The irony that it was Halloween weekend had not escaped him. He was flying to West Virginia to attend a meeting, at which no costume or mask would be tolerated. The Commission on Ministry awaited: in the space of a four hour meeting, they would form a recommendation for the Bishop as to whether Davies should be allowed to remain on the path to priesthood. This was another hurdle, a big one, in the overarching plan that he had only recently begun to cherish in his heart. He arrived at the motel and passed an uneasy night, a product of nerves and an unfamiliar bed. He had convinced himself that sleep was hopeless when…

…Davies was in the chambers of the Supreme Court…the bench was impossibly high…the faceless members of the Commission peered down at him…the bench was a rock wall…he checked his belay and started climbing…halfway up a door appeared…he walked through, the door shut behind him, and he heard the bolt slide home…the cell had two piles of old, grimy hay and a slit of a window high out of reach…a man in a ragged smock sat in the corner… “I can’t do it, Charles,” he said… “Who is Charles?” Davies asked…he looked down and saw his hands trussed with the climbing rope…he was on a cart in the midst of a screaming crowd…the same man caught his eye, turned, and walked away… “Mr. Carton,” Davies cried, “It’s supposed to be you.”…the sun glinted off something metal…

…Davies sat up, knuckled his eyes, and grabbed the bedside clock. 5:00am. The dream was gone. The meeting was in three hours. He got up, paced the room, attempted a few incoherent prayers. He showered, dressed, and ate cereal from a plastic disposable tub at the continental breakfast. At 7:30, he arrived at the retreat center. Horses watched him from behind a whitewashed fence. The mountains rose in the distance. As the fog lifted, the gray morning gave way to all the colors of autumn. This place is too beautiful a setting for defeat, Davies thought.

He walked through the open front door and stood in the hallway. He took a couple of deep breaths, smelled coffee, followed the scent down the hall, and poked his head through a doorway. There they were – no Supreme Court dais or headsman, just a dozen and a half folks, some in black clergy shirts and collars, others in suits or dresses, all with coffee. “Aiden, welcome,” said a woman near the door.

He recognized her from his stint as a camp counselor during the previous summer. “Hello,” he said, and his eyes swept the room. He knew almost half the group on sight. So that’s why the Bishop wanted me to spend the summer at Camp Madison. A tall, goatee-ed priest stood up and shook Davies’s hand. “Here’s the drill,” he said, “We have here both the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee. We’ll split into four groups, and you and the other three aspirants will have an hour with each group. Got it?”

“Yessir,” said Davies. The priest looked as his watch. “Okay, well, I’ll see you in a few hours. Don’t forget to breathe. There’s really no reason to be concerned.”

“That’s easy for you to say.” Davies tried to turn his grimace into a smile. Careful, you idiot: you’re not shooting the breeze after a campfire. But before he could gauge the priest’s reaction, the woman who first greeted Davies said, “You’ll be staying in here, dear.”

She patted the seat next to hers, and he sat down. The other three groups filed out of the room, leaving a small band clustered near Davies. “Will you open with prayer, please,” said the woman. Is this part of the test? He looked at the eager faces around him. Obviously, yes. “Sure…uh…Let us pray,” stalled Davies. “Heavenly Father, please be with us today as we…as they…as the Commission on Committees…I mean, the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee attempt to discern your will. Thank you for bringing us all here safely; in your Son’s name. Amen.”

“Amen,” they echoed. C-minus, if you’re lucky. “Let’s start with your family. You’re father’s a priest in this diocese,” said a man to Davies’s left.

Davies waited for a question, but the man seemed to be finished. “Yes, he is. He’s actually on the Standing Committee, but my cousin’s getting married today, so he’s in Georgia right now.”

“Do you see yourself as following in his footsteps?”

“I guess you could put it that way,” Davies said, “but I tend to think that we’re both following in Jesus’ footsteps. At least, I hope so. It’s not the family business or anything. I was deadset against priesthood until I got to college. Then I was able to be my own person, and I realized that my proximity to dad sheltered me from a call of my own.”

He looked around, but no one was clamoring to ask a question: “There was a time at my internship in Texas,” Davies continued, “when I was preaching and I realized halfway through the sermon that I was just channeling my dad. Then I dropped the microphone, stooped to pick it up, and I was me. It was a pretty cool moment.”

The questioner broke in, “I want to caution you, son. Try not to talk about your father too much today. We want to hear about you.” Well, then why did you ask a question about him? “Uh…yessir,” Davies said instead.

The hour came to a close quicker than he thought possible. The welcoming woman pointed him to his next meeting. He was ready to pray this time. Solid B. The hour passed and he moved on to his third meeting. He expected to pray again, but no invitation came. Instead, another priest he had met at camp waited for him to sit down and then said, “So. You’re 21.”

It was a statement with a tinge of accusation. Davies took a quick breath and chambered a verse bullet about not being despised because of your youth. But just as he was about to fire Paul at the ornery priest, something stopped him. Do you realize you’ve been grading your own prayers? Give it up already. What will be will be. “Yes, I am,” said Davies.

“That’s awfully young.” The hour ticked uncomfortably by. Finally, Davies rose, expecting to see a pool of his own sweat on the chair. At least I didn’t talk about dad. He moved on to his last meeting. Once again, they asked him to pray. “Gracious God,” he began, “thank you for these people who have answered the challenge to discern who you are calling to be ordained in your church. Grant them wisdom and courage; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

I’ve never prayed this much out loud in my whole life. Davies smiled. The goatee-ed priest led the questioning, and before Davies knew it, the morning was over. He sat with the three other aspirants as the joint-committee deliberated. The minutes stretched into an hour, and Davies found himself tracing patterns in the Oriental rug.

“Step outside with me a minute.”

Davies looked up and saw the goatee-ed priest gesturing him to the patio door. He stood up, heart thumping like it used to when a fly ball was hit to him in centerfield. They walked out on the porch, and he half expected to see a guillotine among the wicker chairs, but last night’s dream was just a dream. The priest put his hand on Davies’s shoulder. “Before I say anything else,” he said. Oh God, help me. Oh God oh God oh God (…there it is…A-plus…) Oh GOD. “I want you to know that it is our recommendation that you be approved for postulancy.”

Davies barely heard the rest of the speech. The affirmation was just another piece of the plan, and his head was ten years in the future: I’ve finished seminary and gotten married to my girlfriend – I know we’ve only been together six weeks, but she’s The One. I’ve been called to a large church in a suburb of big city. Our son’s starting Tee Ball next spring, and our daughter is putting everything in her mouth. Our black lab likes to catch Frisbees. It’s perfect.

Of course, most of that never happened. But those are different tales.

Everyone’s heart

(Sermon for May 24, 2009 || Easter 7, Year B, RCL || Acts 1:15-17, 21-26)

Their starting lineup is down a man. While football and soccer teams play with eleven on a side, the apostles need an even twelve. No prime numbers for those apostles. Maybe they need twelve to break into four teams of three for Friday night Cranium.* Or, more plausibly, they need twelve to parallel the tribes of the people of Israel and several other biblical allusions. Whatever the reason, they have an open slot. Peter culls down the candidate pool by limiting applicants to those “who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.” Taking this criterion into account, the selection committee proposes two names: Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias.

Then the eleven pray to God for guidance, beginning with “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” Lord, you know everyone’s heart. What a profound statement of faith – five words that speak to the apostles’ trust in God. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. This one, brief sentence guides their decision-making process in three substantial ways. They acknowledge God’s presence in their endeavor. They understand that making choices involves more than purely mental exercise. And they show humility in the face of a life-altering decision.

Now, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we routinely ignore God’s presence because God is always present. We forget that God is in charge of not just the miraculous, but also the mundane. Our failure to recognize God’s presence is understandable. How many of us note the sound of the engine in the car until there’s an ominous sputtering? How many of us note the reliable glow of the bedside lamp until the transformer blows outside? We adapt to routine. We organize our lives into predictable patterns. But God’s movement in our lives is the very framework upon which our patterns hang, so that movement is often difficult to perceive. On the other hand, like the electricity, we’d notice if God weren’t there.

The apostles combat the tendency to ignore God’s foundational presence by invoking God’s knowledge of their hearts as they make a decision. Lord, you know everyone’s heart is shorthand for, “Lord, you are present in all that we do, and your presence sustains the world we live in and the life we live.” With these words, the apostles invite God into their decision-making process. This invitation may seem superfluous if you believe the assertion that God is ever-present. Indeed, God doesn’t need an invitation to be present in our lives. But we often need to invite God in to remind ourselves to be present to God. Our invitation functions, strangely enough, as an RSVP, as a response to God’s presence. The apostles know this. They know that the Lord is already present, but the invitation prepares their hearts to respond to God’s movement.

Lord, you know everyone’s heart, they pray. The apostles know that making a life-altering decision involves more than mental exercise. I’m sure you’re familiar with the old adage: “Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment.” To put this cliché in more expressive terms: “Don’t let your wild, unrefined feelings derail your completely rational higher brain functions.” This advice is, of course, flawed from the start. You may be able to solve an algebra problem using your mind alone, but the rest of human experience is up for grabs.

Every decision we make has both mental and emotional components, and we ignore the emotional at our peril. When the apostles pray, Lord, you know everyone’s heart, they combine the mental verb “know” with the feeling word “heart.” They understand that God made separating heart from head so difficult precisely because our decision-making process should not attempt the separation. God gave us minds to temper our emotions and hearts to provide our minds with the fuel of hope and imagination. God infused our biology with such checks and balances, so we tragically limit ourselves when we shelve our feelings in favor of our thoughts. Only by mingling the two can we make faithful decisions.

The apostles know they are in God’s presence. They employ both their hearts and their minds as they make their choice. And they show humility in the midst of a life-altering decision. This humility is key to the whole decision-making enterprise. Every one of my choices affects more than just me, and those effects ripple into the future in permutations that my brain is unequipped to process. I don’t know how my decisions will affect others, let alone myself. Furthermore, I don’t even know myself well enough to make good decisions. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. If God knows what’s in my heart, then that makes one of us.

Humility comes in when we acknowledge our limited awareness of ourselves and the world around us. If our interior lives are clouded in mystery, how much less can we understand the trajectory of our decisions in the wider world? Inviting God into the decision-making process opens us up to the One who truly knows us. The humble prayer begins, “Lord you know my heart, and you know it much better than I do.” Confessing our shallow understanding of our own inner selves sets us on the path to faithful decisions.

The apostles pray, “Lord you know everyone’s heart.” They invite God into their decision, thus gaining attentiveness of God’s presence in their lives. They do not let their heads dominate, but mingle their hearts and minds in order to use all their faculties to choose. And they humbly acknowledge that they do not alone have the depth of awareness necessary to make a faithful decision.

The apostles choose Matthias to fill out their number. With a full complement of apostles, the Holy Spirit descends on them and they create the Church. Then they begin to spread the Gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. I invite you to imitate the apostles’ prayer when you are faced with a decision. Invite God into your dilemma. Allow your heart and mind to cooperate. And be humble in the midst of the unknown, trusting that God’s knowledge of your hearts far surpasses your own. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Thanks be to God.


* Instead of Cranium, I said, “three tables for Thursday morning Bridge” at the early service.

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.)