Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
The poet William Wordsworth writes of a time when he was walking toward home, and the beauty of the landscape he knew and loved so well swept him up into a glorious epiphany. In this portion of a much longer poem, he also speaks of vows, which is why I’d like to read it to you now:
Two miles I had to walk along the fields
before I reached my home. Magnificent
The morning was, a memorable pomp,
More glorious than I ever had beheld,
The sea was laughing at a distance; all
The solid mountains were as bright as clouds…
And in the meadows and the lower grounds
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn,
Dews, vapors, and the melody of birds,
And Laborers going forth with the fields.
Ah! need I say, dear friend, but to the brim
My heart was full: I made no vows, but
vows were made for me; bond unknown to me
was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
a dedicated Spirit. On I walked
in blessedness, which even yet remains. (Wordsworth)
We are here because we once made vows, specific vows to live an ordained life, defined by the parameters of a vocation that perhaps we thought we understood and that we imagined would lead us down a particular path or way of being in the world, which may or may not have come to pass.
Set aside the question of how accurate we were in understanding of our vows when first we made them, because how can we know what we’re getting into until we, in fact, get into it? Of course we learn along the way all those things that if we had known up front might have persuaded us to take another path. That’s part and parcel of the vow-making process, as is the experience of failing to live up to our vows; and the experience of wondering what, if anything, vows mean nowadays, in a world of shifting loyalties and linear commitments based on self interest and convenience and what the market for vow-makers happens to be. And the experience of blessedness—the gift of this vocation that from time to time fills our hearts to the brim.
Set all that to one side for now, and consider Wordsworth notion of vows being made for us. “Vows were made for us; bonds unknown to us were given, that we should be, else sinning greatly, dedicated spirits.” How much choice did we have in the matter, really? We thought we were the ones making the vows, and in part we were; and we are renewing those vows today. But we’re not alone in this. In the words of David Whyte, who first introduced me to Wordsworth’s poem, “Whatever you thought you had committed to, there will always be a deeper dynamic inside, a promise larger than your original conception, that in effect makes vows on your behalf and invites you into a different kind of courage than you first intended.” (Whyte, 2007)
Consider the vows God made on your behalf, and the deeper dynamic of your vocation that you might not be fully aware of, and a larger promise that invites you into a different kind of courage now. What kind of courage might that be?
I suspect that God has other things on His mind besides whatever it is you and I are fretting about right now. And while God is always one to hear our prayers and hold our concerns, I have the sense that God is inviting us, even as we fret on those things so urgent to us, to consider a larger landscape, a bigger context that has less to do with our lives on the surface and more with the a deeper calling that God, in the mysterious ways of grace, has already answered on our behalf.
I’m not suggesting that we abdicate personal responsibility and inner agency—the will and drive we all need to clarify a vision and take concrete steps to act upon it. What I’m trying to describe is the feeling I have, and perhaps you do, too, that when it comes to the mystery of this vocation and the vows we make in service to it, things are not entirely in our hands. There’s something wonderfully freeing in knowing that everything doesn’t depend on us. It isn’t all about us. God may even have larger fish to fry than the future of the Episcopal Church, which doesn’t mean that our efforts to serve, strengthen and grow this church of ours are unimportant—simply that there is so much about God’s way in the world that we do not understand. We’re all learning as we go; we’re all stumbling a bit in the dark; we’re all trying to discern what kind of courage our vows require of us now. And whatever answers come to us feel less like a problem we’ve managed to solve and more like a revelation given to us. When little bits of clarity come, they land as blessings.
I’ve just started reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. From what I’ve gleaned in the first few chapters, her basic premise is that we need darkness as much as we need light, which may sound obvious until we take into account the efforts we go to as a culture to keep lights on all the time. She takes particular theological aim at the ways Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness and death and “light” for all that is God. The metaphors of light and darkness are powerful, but the polarities set up by what Taylor calls “full solar spirituality,” (trying to stay in the light always because that’s where God is) creates all kinds of problems (not the least of which is a theological justification for racism and white privilege). It assumes that when we find ourselves in darkness of any kind, when we’ve lost our way and we can’t see the way ahead, that God somehow has exited the scene, or worse, that the darkness is our fault, and if we only tried harder, we’d find ourselves back in the light of day.
But what would happen if we grew more at ease in the dark? What if we embraced what Taylor calls “lunar spirituality,” in which the light of God available to us waxes and wanes with the seasons? Some of the most important lessons we learn in life are those we learn in darkness. Some of the best things that happen to us happen when we cannot see the way ahead. Darkness is a time for gestation, for intimacy; darkness allows space to hold and tend to mystery.
Humility is essential when walking in darkness. “Step one in learning to walk in the dark,” Taylor writes, “is to give up running the show. Next you sign a waiver that allows you to bump into things that frighten you. Finally, you ask darkness to teach you what you need to know.” (Taylor, 2014)
There’s a good chance that among us gathered here, and certainly among all our clergy colleagues in the diocese, vocationally speaking, we collectively occupy every point of the lunar cycle—from the brilliance of the full moon to the tiniest sliver of a new moon that we can barely see. Vocational clarity waxes and wanes through the course of a life. Sometimes we know we are where we are supposed to be, doing what we need to be doing, feeling fulfilled and blessed in the rightness of a particular call. Other times we are far les clear. We’re not as sure; we’re not as connected; we’re not in the right place, but we don’t know how to move. We’re not entirely sure what’s needed of us, or if we have what’s needed. “I feel like a dinosaur,” a colleague once confessed to me. I knew what he meant, and I’ve felt that way, too, but at the same time, I knew that I didn’t want our church to become a dinosaur, as relevant to our time as an electric typewriter repair shop would be to our grandchildren. That’s when I knew there was a different kind of courage required of us now.
Any vow worth its salt leads us to a kind of transformation through which we grow large enough inside to hold what our lives require of us, enabling us to move through the waxing and waning of clarity, and from where you are now to the place that lies beyond your horizons.
But it isn’t all up to us. Yes, we made vows and do our best to be true to them. Yes, we have work to do, or work to find, or work to lay down in the most gracious way we can. But vows were also made for us. Bonds unknown to us were given, in ways that we can only understand by walking the path, in darkness or in light.
Remember as you renew your vows today: God has a stake in your vocation, too. God has made vows on your behalf. Knowing that, walk on, friends, in the blessing that is yours and ours together.
Taylor, B. B. (2014). Learning to Walk in the Dark. New York: HarperCollins.
Whyte, D. (2007). “Conversational Leadership: A Larger Language for Business.” Harvard Business Review.
Wordsworth, W. The Major Works, Including the Prelude. Oxford University Press.