Tuning Our Souls
18 January 2008
In September of 2008, I went to Saint Gregory's Abbey for the first time. I was picked up at the train station in Kalamazoo in the midst of a bunch of errands. Father William, one of the monks, had to go to a bunch of different places before returning to the monastery. The recycling center, a grocery store, an office supply store, even a wholesale food store. Suffice it to say I became very familiar with many and various Kalamazoo institutions that day. It was no-one's fault, but the errands just took longer than anticipated, and we didn't get to the Abbey until after four.
I was hungry for quiet and a respite from busy-ness, but at first I didn't get it. The whole time I kept thinking, “You're the guest, Jorge; be gracious, don't get impatient. This guy's a monk, he probably feels bad already that we're still driving around out here.” The first psalm appointed for Vesper that night was Psalm 139. The knitting metaphor hit me hard, and something about it pulled me deep into the quiet I needed. It was as if I was in a state of hyper-readiness and this psalm struck just the right chord to thrust me into what that retreat was all about.
And so it as the psalm that hit me first when I looked over these lessons. And the knitting metaphor, as always, stuck out to me. Whether I preach or not, I am always tempted to try to understand the weave, the knit, that the various threads of the lectionary present to us.
Tonight, we have the psalm, the calling of Samuel, the call of Nathanael, and Paul's exhortations to the Corinthians.
The readings from First Samuel and John both seem to set vocation within a quiet or at least non-sensational context.
I don't hear voices in the middle of the night nor did Philip ever tell me to come and see, but what strikes me here is the seeming ordinariness of vocation. When Samuel is called, it is by a voice unremarkable enough to make him this it was Eli's. Nathanael balks at the hometown of the Messiah. It couldn't be God; it's all too ordinary.
Vocation here is simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary. To us, meeting Jesus in the flesh, face-to-face, would be unbelievable, but to the disciples, he was just some dude, amongst many, preaching and teaching at the time.
Important too, is that both of these callings are not to one specific thing, at least not in the context of these passages.
Too often, we think of calln as an either/or, as a series of discernments that have in hone in on a particular mission that excludes all others. The calling Samuel seems to be a call that helps others see who he is. The call of Nathanael seems to be a calling that helps Nathanael recognize a truth about himself.
God is bigger and more complicated, God's will is bigger and more complicated, than a single particular mission. We are called, like Samuel, to listen. Like Nathanael, we are called to be open to God coming from dinky ol' Nazareth.
It is safe to say that none of us here is called to be a prophet and judge like Samuel, and almost as safe that none of us is called to be a capital-A Apostle like Nathanael, but we are called through our Christian profession to lives of discipleship.
Last week, we celebrated the Baptism of our Lord, which prefigured every Christian baptism that followed. Now we are called to living out that baptism —our baptisms, our professions of faith— in lives of faithful discipleship.
Discipleship can mean many different things, but le me suggest that Paul's letter to the Corinthians established a very particular way of understanding discipleship.
Many of us struggle with sexual discipline and chastity. Whether it is a lack of control over how we look at others or a difficulty with other aspects of our sexuality, most of us struggle with this kind of intergrity at some point.
The passage, however, is taken out of context somewhat, and let me read the three verses which precede it:
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
Suddenly, I seems that Paul is really picking a particular sin and using it to stand in for this whole list. Honor God in your whole person, by living with the kind of integrity you are called to.
Christian holiness is about respect for the proper uses of all creation. We are called to this very kind of holy discipleship, a vocation of holiness.
And yet, that's really scary. Really unattractive. This is fear rooted in a misconception that holiness will destroy who we are.
“I don't want to be a saint,” a friend said to me recently, which I understood to mean, “I don't want to lose my personality, who I am.” And yet we —my friend, you, me— we are called to holiness.
Xunzi, a Confucian philosopher of the Third Century, makes the unsettling assertion that human nature is uh or evil. And when he describes how to fix human nature he resorts to a great number of carpentry metaphors to describe what must be done to the soul. “A warped soul must await the press frame,” “a soul may be carved as craftsman carves a vessel,” and so on, but he never uses one familiar image from carpentry: the saw. Xunzi describes many ways to shape, bend, carve, and craft the human character, but never advocates we saw any of it off.
Lately, I've been using the metaphor of tuning to describe the effects of my spiritual disciplines. When I achieve a healthy, productive rhythm in my spiritual practice, I feel as if I am better tuned tobe who I am.
As we leave Christmas behind, move further into Epiphanytide, and gradually approach Lent, we need to ask ourselves what form shall our discipleship take.
What tunes you? What tunes us, as a church, as a neighborhood, as a nation, as a world to better play the melody which is the Will of God.
Paul's exhortations, which make us justifiably uncomfortable as we identify those disfiguring, distorting, disordered accretions that we deal with, are essentially a call to be properly tuned, properly knit, properly ready to answer the call to holiness.
Hear the Psalmist's words: “God formed my inward parts; God knit me together in my mother's womb.” How is God knitting us still? What is God casting onto the weave that is our life, the work that is our soul?
Holiness —discipleship— is not an end state, but a state of readiness, a state of internal and external harmony, or proper relationship that allows us to answer God's call.
We are not all called to be tuned in the same way. Some tunings, some spiritual practices will leave us useless, strings snapped, unable to sound a single note. But we are all called to this kind of spiritual self-examination and work.
What tunes us? How do we need to be tuned? What figure or metaphor helps you understand how God is continuing to sanctify you with grace? How can you help prepare yourself for the great work God has in mind for you?
Today the begins the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. I think it is safe to say that many Christians are out of tune with each other. In a few minutes we will pray a special litany for Christian unity together. Please keep the intentions of Christian unity in your prayers this week, either by incorporating this litany, or some other resource, or by simply holding the Universal Church in prayer.
We are each members of the Mystical Body of Christ, instruments in a huge orchestra; may the Communion we share tonight prepare us —tune us— to play the powerful majestic melody which is the Will of God and create the profound harmony which is the Kingdom of God. Amen.