Canon Schmidt: “A Convenient Epiphany”
And the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
It was late. Like the best of their trade they knew it was time to call it a day. They hadn’t had any luck fishing anyway. And yet, there it was, the quiet but confident command, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” And hard on it’s heels, the epiphany, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
Why can’t God be more convenient? Is there some reason that the whole experience of divine encounter can’t be tailored to our needs? Wouldn’t a course in total quality management do a bit of good? Perhaps heaven could even distribute a customer service assessment:
God would like to thank you for your belief and patronage. In order to better serve your needs, God asks that you take a few moments to answer the following questions.
Please keep in mind that your responses will be kept completely confidential, and that you need not disclose your name or address unless you prefer a direct response to comments or suggestions.
1. How did you find out about God?
__ Divine Inspiration
__ Word of Mouth
__ Near Death Experience
__ Other (specify): _____________
2. Are you currently using any other source of inspiration in addition to God? Please check all that apply.
__ Tarot Cards
__ Fortune cookies
__ Ann Landers
__ Self-help books
__ Alcohol or Drugs
__ Insurance Policies
__ Other: _____________________
3. God employs a limited degree of Divine Intervention to preserve the balanced level of felt presence and blind faith. Which would you prefer (circle one)?
a. More Divine Intervention
b. Less Divine Intervention
c. Current level of Divine Intervention is just right
d. Don’t know
4. God also attempts to maintain a balanced level of disasters and miracles. Please rate on a scale of 1-5 God’s handling of the following
a. Disasters (flood, famine, earthquake, war)
1 2 3 4 5
b. Miracles (rescues, spontaneous remission of disease, sports upsets)
1 2 3 4 5
5. Do you have any additional comments or suggestions for improving the quality of God’s services? (Attach an additional sheet if necessary):
But, no. That is not the stuff of epiphany—of encounter with the divine—and the results are never quite what we expected or wanted. The experience of the divine, the numinous, the holy is not something that can be orchestrated. The experience is unbidden; it is beyond manufacturing. And so, for that reason, the designer spirituality that dominates the American scene can never compare with the experiences of Peter and the disciples.
Theirs are experiences marked by the unevenness of growth that are the products of a relationship with the divine. With no thought of cultivating their spirits in the same fashion that one might cultivate a skill or ability, theirs is the product of a longing for the presence of God. Like the strange warming of John Wesley’s heart, Luther’s overwhelming experience of his own inadequacy or the patchwork quilt of Peter’s willingness and fear, God is experienced in the midst of a passion for the divine, not in the cultivation of one’s own spiritual capacity.
And this is why the stories of the gospel engage us in the way they do, why the stories of martyrs—fearful, brave and brave-in-spite-of-being-fearful—fill the church’s calendar of feasts and fasts. This is why the broken and the bleeding, the wounded healers and the less-than-perfect occupy the lore of the church’s life. For, ultimately, a health club might be a great place to lose a few pounds, but it is hardly a substitute for the spiritual maturation that comes only with a passion to know God in a way that shapes the whole of life.
Conversation about “spirituality” is itself, therefore, a tricky business, because ultimately our spiritual “capacity,” the spiritual “dimension” of our lives, is neither a “capacity” nor a single “dimension” of the larger lives we lead. It is, instead, the organizing passion of our lives, the driving force, the central logic. This is why both the Old and the New Testaments use the words spirit, soul, heart and mind in interchangeable ways. Each term, in one fashion or another, helps to capture a piece of that comprehensive commitment and quest that is the experience of the believer and the pilgrim.
This, too, is why a spirituality bent on simply discovering our own inner strength will never suffice. Peter does not announce that he has discovered the voice within, his resources or inner strength. Instead, he confesses his own sinfulness. He hasn’t discovered himself, he has discovered God—the Holy One. And, as Rudolf Otto observed years ago, a confession like Peter’s is not rooted in simple concepts of sin and having done something wrong.
It is rooted in an experience of the holy, an experience of something qualitatively unlike anything we have ever experienced. It is not simply an experience of our own shortcomings; it is an experience of God. And it is, for this reason, that Peter’s confession is not an obstacle to service.
It is this realization that also brings us to yet another difference between the experience of the disciples and a spirituality doled out to waiting consumers, served by divinities schooled in Total Quality Management. The experience of the holy, if it is authentic, cannot stop with us. In the face of Jesus, the call to discipleship is given a specificity: A Lord, a mission, a Kingdom and a table that celebrates the possibility of it all—a cross, a burden, a passion and a calling.
That is why the epiphany on the lake comes at God’s behest, not ours. Taking up the cross of Christ is too easily co-opted. We are forever tempted to trivialize God’s call (on the one hand) or to use the call for our own self-aggrandizement (on the other). So an experience of God’s presence, those surprising moments at the end of an exhausting and fruitless day of effort, save us from ourselves. We are delivered from that Pogo-like moment in which we meet the enemy and discover that it is us and, instead, we are invited to rest in the arms of the one who is holy. But the purpose is never simply to rest there but to press forward in the name of the Kingdom.
This, too, is why our conversations about service and calling are marked by such patent insecurity and nonsense. This is why we define service to the Kingdom in narrow terms and we struggle with defining the roles of clergy and laity. For the call of Kingdom, the experience of the holy, makes its claim, not on a bit of our time and not in a way that is foreign to who we are, making everyone who experiences the holy a priest or a missionary!
The call of the Kingdom makes its claims upon our passion and, thereby, on the whole of our lives. And, so, the appropriate response to the encounter is one that is integral and organically tied to who we are. The answer to God’s call on our lives is not the anxious search for a few hours to do God’s work. It is the growing, uneven, developmental process of allowing a passion for God to grow in us.
For that reason, neither the best nor the only stories of saints are the stories about martyrs and missionaries, priests and bishops. No. They include Jonathan who, as a civil rights attorney, was trained in the United States and today serves his own people in the Middle East, a courageous defender of justice defined in biblical terms. It is Wally, who spent the entirety of the second World War in a prisoner camp in Poland, but who—without bitterness nor the rigidity that one might have expected—sought to understand God and the gospel until his death at the age of 74. And it is Ellen, who adopted two children eight years ago from a complex family background and who daily struggles to help them overcome their past. None of them would have chosen their calling, but when epiphany comes, it comes to those with a passion to see the face of Christ.