There is a saying that God has a million Plan As – so choose Plan A. It is a nod to God’s sweeping power, power which does not rely on micromanaging us into some foreordained outcome, but rather is alive and responsive to the random events and the free choices of our lives. There is nothing in heaven or on earth, no missteps, no wrong moves, that can separate us from God’s love. If Jesus was willing to pass through the gate of hell itself to release the lost and imprisoned, then surely God can stay close to us through any variety of flawed and limited choices that we might make.
This must be true. But it is also true, in my life anyway, that God occasionally shows up as a relentless nag with a very particular agenda in mind. I picture God as the now-deceased collie dog, Cassie, who belonged to my aunt and uncle and used to nip the ankles of her family members (especially Uncle Paul) as soon as we got out of bed in the morning, trying to herd us into the places and activities she thought we should be doing. Or, in the wakeful nights of the last few weeks, God was like my childhood friend Mendi who, invited for a sleepover, chatted relentlessly through the night. I used to watch the hours of the night slip away from us, my practical mind becoming increasingly frantic about how tired I knew I would be the next day.
God is not a micromanager. And also, God is so invested in the stuff of life, God is so present to us that God is not above (not some far removed deity looking down from on high) ankle nipping. Poet Christian Wiman reflects on his relationship with God, wondering what it means to have our lives guided and informed by prayer. Wiman sweeps beyond all of the individual concerns that we might be tempted to think God should fix for us or advise on, things like finding a parking spot or even, in his case, being cured of cancer. With piercing honesty, he claims connection to God as so far beyond one person’s own desires and needs that all we can hope for is to submit our darkness and disappointment to that greater power, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemene. But then Wiman circles back and claims those petty concerns as part of our relationship with God too: “And maybe, just maybe, it even means praying for a parking spot in the faith that there is no permutation of reality too minute or trivial for God to be altogether absent from it,” he concludes.
I pray for parking spots and cures and sunny weather and other particular outcomes all the time. I am surprised at how often my little prayers are answered. There is a cost though. Since I look expectantly for God to get involved in the specific requests I am always laying at the divine feet, God has some pretty specific requests for me in return.
‘No’ very definitely was my answer to any suggestion that I might be on the ballot for the episcopal election held in this diocese this coming March. My change of heart and the appearance of my name on that ballot does not suggest that I believe God has called me to be the next Bishop. A number of years ago, Bishop Peter Fenty noted that an individual cannot discern God’s call to be the Bishop, an individual can only discern God’s call to be on the ballot. After this individual discernment, the church itself takes over and elects one of those names to the new office. Fellow candidate in this upcoming election, the Venerable David Anderson, helped me to better understand what Bishop Peter was saying those many years ago. “It’s not that nine people will lose and one will win,” he noted. “It’s that this group of people has been called by the Diocese to be the public voices in our collective discernment. Each of those voices is going to help us, as a church, figure out who God is calling as our Bishop and where God is leading our church.”
Through a series of conversations with a wide-ranging and surprising cross-section of people (including most importantly my family), one or two signs too personal to share in this blog, and two weeks of heart-pounding agonizing prayer and reflection in the middle of the night (hence, God as the annoying sleepover friend), I concluded that God was indeed asking me to be on this ballot. As with other such key junctures of discernment, it wasn’t so much that I said ‘yes’ to God, it was more that I gave in and stopped fighting.
Of course, although the discernment is, as Peter and David noted, only around being on the ballot, imagining the consequences of being elected is part and parcel of my assent. If I knew that this was all going to stop with the ballot, then God wouldn’t have had to be such a hound. I enjoy working hard. I like to rise to a challenge. And I am passionately in love with God’s church. As daunting as the office of Bishop is, the reasons that I was tempted to buy earplugs and ignore God’s nagging have little to do with the work itself. My kids are young. My colleague Scott jokes that there is a Star Wars reason why I can’t yet leave St. George’s: “Your training is not yet complete, young Padawan.” I agree with him. By no means does it feel as if I am ready to leave my current ministry.
As I was still waffling, Psalm 23 came across my path. I have been praying the psalms in the evening lately, trying to linger over words that I have said and heard too many times to count. Psalm 23 was the next one ‘up’. I can tell you that I have given no thought to Psalm 23 at any time in my life. It’s not that I don’t like it. It has been too over-used, too enshrined in stained glass and Hallmark cards and goldy-oldie hymns, for me to ever consider whether I like it or not. On this night of indecision, however, I was reading these words for the first time:
God is the one setting the path.
The path will go through some dark and dead places.
There will be water provided when I am thirsty.
I will not just be okay, I will be blessed with God’s goodness and mercy.
In these words, I did not hear a promise for the future, for what God will do. I also didn’t hear a choice given to me, a choice to trust God and go forward. Instead, what I heard was a description of how my life has been. I thought of all of the times that I have had one agenda and have been herded into God’s agenda instead, and how blessed I have been by God’s agenda. I thought of the dead ends that I have encountered, obstacles that are too great to overcome, commitments too many and too heavy to be able to adequately juggle, and I thought of the way through that God has always shown up to show me. I thought of those times that Dan and I have leaped together into the unknown after agonizing about the impossibility of being able to find in that unknown a life that could possibly work, only to receive grace upon grace upon grace.
I realized as each word of Psalm 23 suddenly hit me like a bolt of lightning, that I didn’t have to choose to trust God going forward. I would have had to have chosen not to trust, I would have had to expend a great deal of effort and talked myself through some complicated mental and spiritual gymnastics to suddenly decide that I was in this alone. God is my shepherd. This is not belief. It is experience.
Something has been asked of me, and in the end, I didn’t even have to say yes. I just had to not turn away from the staff that I can clearly see guiding and guarding me.