Series: Vocation, Gratitude, and Joy
Sermon #4: The Path of Life
By: Anna Hillaker
I. But How Do We Decide?
Over the past few weeks, we have been exploring the topic of vocation— what does it look like for us to find a sense of purpose in our lives, pairing our interests, our gifts, and our skills with God’s kingdom work of repairing the world? How do we discern what God might be calling us to do? We’ve explored the idea that vocation is found not just in our individual interests and gifts, but also in community. The people around us so often reflect to us how God may be at work in our lives. We considered that while vocation is about us, it isn’t just about us, that it is always tied in to the bigger work of renewal in the world. We have explored how we don’t typically get a detailed road map of everything we’re supposed to do in our lives, with horrible consequences if we make a mistake. All of this has been fruitful and lovely to consider, but it might leave us with some questions. At the end of the day, we still need to make choices. We still need to do something. So how do we choose? What does it look like to make a decision in faith?
In my experiences, I have found that we often gravitate toward one of two postures when we’re faced with vocational choices. Either we take things into our own hands, or we freeze, waiting passively for God to tell us exactly what to do. I certainly know that I have tried both of these postures before! What I have often done in the past is try to be patient and wait and discern, until I can’t take it anymore. Then I leap into action, trying to take control of the situation, trying to make something, anything, happen. I wait for a while, and when God doesn’t tell me what to do in sky writing, I figure that it’s up to me to make a plan. And I will tell you now, this has not generally been the most successful of methods for me.
[Story: After grad school, I was trying to figure out what was next. I felt like a time for transition had arrived, but I didn’t feel a clear sense of what I should do, or what God might be asking me to do. I waited, I prayed, and I hadn’t arrived at a decision. So, I decided to make a plan. I decided to move to Toronto, where I had some denominational connections and some friends. Surely if I just took a leap, something would come together. But trying to force something to come together is not fun, and it’s not easy. I got very sick, struggled through setback after setback, to the point where it was almost comical. Almost comical. I certainly wasn’t laughing at the time. Eventually, I had to admit defeat. But here’s the thing. God didn’t give up on me because I took matters into my own hands. God didn’t stop providing for me or loving me or guiding me vocationally. Instead, God led me, in many surprising ways to somewhere I never expected to be. God brought me here, to you.]
Looking back, I don’t think the problem was that I discerned incorrectly. I do think it was probably time to leave Vancouver. I think my mistake was a different sort— I lacked the patience to wait, and I wanted all of the answers right away. I was trying to figure out the next ten steps, instead of waiting and discerning patiently for the next one step. And isn’t that how God seems to work? Even if we’ve discerned that something is coming, a change is happening, even if we we’re given a pretty specific idea of what that might be, we still don’t know how it’s going to come about, and we’re sorely tempted to either take control ourselves, or abdicate responsibility and ask God to do all the work for us. So what do we do? What are our alternatives?
II. The Single Step
One challenge I have identified over and over again in processing vocation is the problem of scale. We want all of the information up front. We want the entire game plan. We’re so focused on wanting to know how everything will play out in detail, that we may miss the smaller, more ordinary ways that God may be guiding us. I remember meeting with my spiritual director while on retreat several months before leaving Vancouver. As I processed my sense of vocation with him, he pointed something out to me. He said “you’re looking at this so black and white! You either want to do nothing, or have the whole plan worked out.” And then he said something that has stuck with me ever since, despite the fact that I absolutely did not follow this advice at the time. He said, “what if you were to return to the simple place of peace in God’s presence, and then just take a single step?” A single step. Why does that feel so much more impossible than 10 steps? Or a five year plan? Why is it so difficult to embrace the single step?
The more time I’ve spent with all of these questions, the more I’ve come to realize something. At the bottom of all of this are questions of trust. Do we trust ourselves? Do we trust God? If we trust God, but not ourselves, we might be frozen in place, too afraid to act in fear that we will mess it up, and that we will not receive the good things that God has planned for us. We’re terrified that we haven’t discerned correctly, that we don’t have the gifts and resources to act, that we will irrevocably wreck God’s plan for our lives. And so we freeze, and we wait for a Sign. We wait for the The Plan. And we get ever more confused as we fail to find it. On the other hand, if we trust ourselves, but we don’t trust God, we might grab control of the situation ourselves, forging ahead with a plan of our own out of fear that God maybe won’t provide after all. When the things we are longing for aren’t materializing on the timeline that we hoped for, when God’s voice seems quiet, or the detailed itinerary for our lives hasn’t arrived in our email inboxes yet, we might make a plan of our own. What if God doesn’t come through after all? What if I have to wait longer than I feel like I can? What if I am missing out on my chance and letting life pass me by? We may become so focused on the big picture, or we may be so focused on God’s plan living up to our detailed and precise expectations that we miss the subtler ways that God is meeting us and guiding us toward the next single step.
Friends, I think our invitation is this— to trust God, to trust ourselves, and to embrace the wisdom of the single step.
III. The Path of Life
I have often found wisdom, comfort, and guidance in Psalm 16:
Keep me safe, my God
for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
apart from you I have no good thing.”
I say of the godly who are in the land,
“They are the noble people
in whom is all my delight.”
Those who run after other gods
will suffer more and more.
I will not pour out their libations of blood
or take up their names on my lips.
Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
you have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
I find this psalm beautiful and encouraging, but I also think it is a handy guide for discernment. From the beginning, we’re told two things: the psalmists trusts God, declaring loyalty to Yahweh, and there is difficulty ahead. The first six verses of the psalm are filled with confidence and trust in God: “I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;/ apart from you I have no good thing.”” But despite all this confidence and trust, we know that times may be tough, and that there might be danger or uncertainty at hand. Right off the bat in verse one, the psalmist prays for protection: “Keep me safe, my God/ for in you I take refuge.” These two realities live side by side for the psalmist— trust and the dangers and difficulties of life. And that is where we begin to discern, isn’t it? With trust in the face of uncertainty.
In the face of all of this, what does the Psalmist have? The presence and provision of God. Verses five and six use some language we might not be super familiar with— words like “portion,” “lot,” and “boundary lines.” In the book of Judges, the land of Israel was divided into allotments for each tribe. These words are references to that process. Each of the tribes of Israel got their share of the land— land that would provide shelter, food, income, and stability for them into the future. Each of the tribes, that is, except the Levites. For the Levites, the Lord was their inheritance. The Lord was their allotment. That is what the Psalmist is saying— that their security comes from the Lord. That their inheritance is the presence of God. And this for the Psalmist is something they take joy in. It is a delightful inheritance. Their allotment is a pleasant place. What if we were to approach our decisions, to approach our vocations, as if God was our inheritance, our source of provision, and our security?
IV. Wholistic Discernment— Trusting God, Trusting Ourselves
This is a beautiful vision, but it still doesn’t provide any insight on what it looks like to discern and act in partnership with God. That’s where I think the rest of the psalm can really help us out. Let’s pick it up at verse 7: “I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;/ even at night my heart instructs me.” This brings me back to the question of trust. Do we trust God? Do we trust ourselves? The Psalmist seems to be saying that it’s crucial that we do both— we must listen to the counsel and direction of God, and we must attune ourselves to our own internal cues. The word translated “heart” here is literally translated “kidneys,” which were though to be the seat of the conscience. This verse depicts so much of what we have been talking about over the past few weeks— paying attention to our own thoughts, desires, fears, and gifts and being attentive also to the ways that we might be hearing from God. I love this wholistic approach. It isn’t the either/or. We aren’t jumping in to make the plan ourselves, nor are we hanging back and waiting for God to do all the work. It is a partnership rooted in love and trust. The reference to “night” here might mean a time of prayer or reflection, which often took place at night. It is about paying attention to our interior disposition as we approach God in prayer. It is about being receptive to God, while also being open and acknowledging our own interior life.
This is where we’re invited to synthesize all of that stuff we’ve been talking about during this sermon series— what are your passions and interests? what have trusted people in your community reflected to you about your gifts? what opportunities have you come across lately to engage with the work of the kingdom? what has been coming up for your in your times of prayer, reflection, or conversation? We take what we know of our whole selves, we do our best to come to a place of peace in the presence of the God who is our inheritance and our security, and we take a single step forward.
As you know, today is my last Sunday as a pastor on staff here at the Vineyard. It has been such a beautiful season of my life, vocationally and otherwise. I want to sincerely thank you all. It has been a joy for me to pastor here, to get to know you, to serve with you, to learn from you. I’m looking forward to continuing to be in community with you here, albeit in a different role. Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people why I’m leaving a job that I love. It seems foolish. Nonsensical. Strange. And I get that! For me, the process of making this vocational decision has been a lot like what I’ve been talking about— a long dialogue between me and God, a process of listening to the invitation of God as well as my own interior life. A lot of little steps and explorations that have led to clarity, and to a deep sense of peace. From the beginning, I have always felt that my call to pastor here was for a season, and while I didn’t know how long exactly that season would last, I knew that it would eventually come to an end and that I would feel a little nudge from the Holy Spirit when it was time.
Around the new year I began to notice some little signs. Cues that something was shifting. So I did a lot of listening to myself and to God. A lot of talking with people I am close to and trust. A lot of meeting with my spiritual director. A lot of considering what was in my own heart. And as time went on, I felt a growing invitation to create more space, to release the shape that my life has taken recently. That process of letting go has not been an easy one. I have been releasing things that I love, that have been gifts from God, things that are beautiful. There has been real grief in that process for me. But the more I began to embrace that invitation, the more I began to feel sure that God was preparing me for something new. One of the pictures that sprang to mind during spiritual direction was of a garden plot. One of the raised beds in my yard, which right now is full of growing veggies. In this picture I had, it was spring. The plot was cleared of the old growth and the remains of last year’s garden, and soil was turned over and ready. But it wasn’t quite time to plant something new. I felt like God was asking me to wait. To clear space and then hold that space with openness and expectancy. Not to rush in and plan something out of anxiety. Not to allow weeds to grow in the fertile soil. I was supposed to clear the ground, prepare the soil, and wait with careful attention.
I know for a lot of you that process sounds opaque and hard to understand. But for me, most things— most thoughts, emotions, and decisions, come in the form of a metaphor, a picture, a poem. You might want my reasons. My pro/con list (which doesn’t exist, by the way). The process will probably look different for you! Maybe the Spirit does speak to you through a pro/con list! But for me, the most important part of this process has not been my reasons, though of course those have factored in, and I’d be more than happy so share more about those with you. It has been my growing trust that the Holy Spirit was nudging me, my increasing sense of peace as I leaned in to the invitation to create space, my confidence that God would provide all that I needed. The psalmist says in verse 8: “I keep my eyes always on the Lord./ With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” That is what I am striving to do, however imperfectly I manage it, as I move forward. I’m trying to trust God. I’m trying to trust myself. I’m trying to set my eyes on the Lord and take just one step forward.
V. Fullness of Joy in the Presence
And friends, there is joy in that process. I’m going to read the last few verses of Psalm 16 again, this time from a translation by a Jewish scholar named Robert Alter, that I find particularly beautiful:
So my heart rejoices and my pulse beats with joy,
my whole body abides secure.
For You will not forsake my life to Sheol
You won’t let your faithful one see the Pit.
Make me know the path of life.
Joy overflows in Your presence,
delights in Your right hand forever.
Again, the psalmist depicts this as a wholistic experience of joy. Heart and body. The sense of the Hebrew is that it is the psalmist’s entire being that rejoices, it is the deepest and fullest sense of who we are that is rejoicing. And here is the interesting thing. The rejoicing isn’t because life has already been sorted out. The Psalmist says that God will be faithful to us, that God will not abandon us, even in death. But that implies that there is a lot that we don’t know yet, a lot about the psalmist’s circumstances that haven’t been worked out. But in the midst of that the psalmist clings to a deep trust that God is faithful. We don’t get to see the entire path ahead. The path is unfolding ahead of us as we walk. We have confidence that God is with us, at our side, making the path of life known to us as we walk together. We trust that there is joy in the the presence of Jesus, not just in the future, but now, as we journey together.
If you’re here this morning and you’re thinking, “but I don’t trust God,” or “I don’t trust myself,” I want you to know— I’m not suggesting that you get it together and muster up that trust on your own. I’m not telling you that you should already know what that next step is, or that you should already be filled with enough peace and confidence to take it. Instead, I offer you a different invitation—to ask God for what you need. To ask God to show up. To ask God to help you trust— in Jesus, in yourself. To ask God to remind you of your beloved uniqueness, what one author calls your “irreducible particularity.” James 1:5 says “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” Jesus is always seeking to meet with us, to speak to us, to love us, to provide for us. If you are uncertain, doubting, or full of fear this morning, I invite you to consider asking. Asking for the Holy Spirit to meet you, right now, right where you are. It is the Holy Spirit who guides us down the path of life. The Spirit instills us with joy, comfort, and peace on the journey. We may not know what is coming beyond the next step, but we can step forward in confidence and in trust, because we know that God’s very presence is going with us.