Carolyn D. Shields
October 3, 1999
Focused on Commitment
"Now, what do you think? There was once a man who had two sons. He went to the older one and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ ‘I don’t want to,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. ‘Yes, sir,’ he answered, but he did not go. Which one of the two did what his father wanted?"
"The older one," they answered.
So Jesus said to them, "I tell you: the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John the Baptist came to you showing you the right path to take, and you would not believe him; but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. Even when you saw this, you did not later change your minds and believe him."
Good morning. I’d like to dedicate this sermon to the Learners and Teachers mission group: Dan Phillips, Margreta Silverstone, David Lloyd, Anne Beaufort, Ron Arms, Marjory Bankson and Ken Burton.
In the gospel lesson we heard from Matthew this morning about the two sons, one who told his father he wouldn’t go to work in the vineyard but then changed his mind and went, and the other who told his father he would work in the vineyard but then didn’t, I think that Jesus is holding up a mirror to his listeners. Many of the priests and elders he was talking to had made a commitment to follow a religious life, but Jesus gently pointed out to them that publicly stating a commitment to a religious life and actually living a life led by God are two different things. This morning I will talk about how a whole-hearted commitment to something can lead to wonderful and unexpected blessings–and unexpected loss as well. I hope to leave you with some questions to wrestle with as we focus on this season of recommitment.
As most of you know, back in February I decided that it would be a good idea to commit to something called the Washington, D.C. AIDS Ride 4. To be part of this event, you pay $45, and in return, you get the opportunity to buy a bike and commit to being able to ride it 330 miles in 3 1/2 days, and in addition, you have the privilege of raising at least $1,900 to get to do it, all of the effort, of course, going to help people living with HIV and AIDS in the Washington area. So I signed up, and because I didn’t want to be the only silly one from Seekers riding my bike and fundraising all spring, I invited you all to do it with me, and as you know, the rest is history. Jackie, Kate, Andrew, myself, and two other friends of ours became Team Seekers. With your help, the six of us raised over $15,000, and in June, along with about 1700 other cyclists, we rode our bikes from Raleigh, NC to the most jubilant and triumphant welcome in Washington, D.C. we could have imagined.
The commitment alone to something that huge changed something within each member of Team Seekers. We had to have what Marjory calls in her book Call to the Soul a Warrior’s focus. We had to change our eating habits, breathe, eat and sleep bicycle training, fund raise, and pretty much wipe our calendars clean of any external events during the 12 or so weeks leading up to the ride. Call to the Soul says, "Saying ‘yes’ to something new requires that we say ‘no’ to other possibilities, which are not necessarily bad or evil, just roads not taken. In a culture where we want to ‘keep our options open,’ call, [or commitment], requires focus." (p. 123)
Through doing the AIDS Ride, I learned that having a committed focus to something also reaps unexpected benefits. I can’t tell you how many times members of this community have approached me, both during the time Team Seekers was training for the AIDS Ride and even now, who say things to me like, "You know, I’m thinking about getting a bike," and, "Carolyn, I rode my bike 20 miles this weekend!" and "You inspired me to start running again," and, "I’d like to sit down with you to talk about a plan for getting in better shape." I can’t tell you how much these affirmations of my role and call in this community mean to me.
The quote from Servant Leadership that Peter used in his sermon on Manna says, "The variable that marks some periods as barren and some as rich in prophetic vision is in the interest, the level of seeking, and the responsiveness of the hearers. … Prophets grow in stature as people respond to their message." Now, while I’d hardly call myself a prophet, it was and is through this community’s response to my call to form Team Seekers and do the AIDS Ride that I learned that my own enthusiasm and love for physical activity is my primary vehicle for ministering to others right now. I hadn’t known that before.
Be careful when you give a committed, Warriors’ focus to something, because your life might get turned upside down. Three of us from my work place, the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service, participated in the AIDS Ride. Since then, both of my co-workers have left CNVS for jobs that are better suited to them, one of whom, unfortunately, happened to be my assistant. My friend Ken, who was part of team Seekers, quit his job and has enrolled in massage school full time. Jackie is in Guatemala right now because she told me she doesn’t want to live out the rest of her life without being bilingual. Kate is now clear that starting a private counseling practice is the direction her career should take. She says that the AIDS Ride taught her that fears are powerless in the face of a strongly held vision. The evolution for me took form in a deeper and more serious commitment to my yoga practice with the intention of becoming a yoga teacher myself. Seeing this evolution in my own life and in the lives of those around me since the AIDS Ride is incredibly exciting to me. For many of us who participated in the AIDS Ride, it was a wake up call to the incredible potential our seemingly ordinary lives hold. To me, this phenomenon is like creation, ever expanding with possibility. We become God’s creation incarnate as we live into the lives God calls us to. What can possibly be more joyful than that?
Call to the Soul says, "Each birth has its own dynamic energy, its own timing and sequence." The rhythms of my life with a commitment to yoga are different than the rhythms of my life while I was training for the AIDS Ride. The aches and pains in my body are different. Instead of consuming as much pasta as I can hold, I’ve shifted my attention to eating more lightly, more discriminately. What I pay attention to in the course of a day is different. The week I made the definite decision to pursue becoming a yoga teacher, I had a dream where a huge train came crashing in through the wall of a warehouse were I was, and that I was one of the few people who was allowed to board because I had a special paper that showed that I had a paid reservation. I’ve found that focused commitment can really change the feel of where spirit is working in my life.
Commitment is an extremely powerful thing. While I was actually on my bike riding in the AIDS Ride, I knew that there were two things I wanted to commit to once the AIDS Ride was over. One, I knew I wanted to deepen my practice of yoga, and two, I wanted to train for and run a marathon. In just making those decisions, doors opened for me, and guides appeared to help me move toward both of those goals. I finally decided that if I were going to follow either pursuit with any integrity, however, I had to choose only one, and for me, the invitation to deepen my yoga practice was the loudest and the most joyful, so that’s what I decided to pursue. When I made that decision, the people who had appeared in my life who would have guided me in training for a marathon had I stayed with that decision, drifted away.
While having a Warrior’s focus on something is exciting, it is not without loss as well. Again, Call to the Soul says, "…whenever we give birth to something new, other things have to be set aside." (p. 123). One day I was at Elisabeth Dearborn’s house, and we were outside in her garden looking at some type of fruit that was growing on a vine. Whatever type of fruit it was couldn’t yet be identified because of its small size and because it grew from a volunteer seed from her compost pile. Now also growing on the vine were very pretty little white flowers, but because she wanted the fruit to grow, she knew that she’d have to prune away the little flowers, even though it pained her to do so. She knew that the flowers were stymieing the full development and growth of the fruit, and pretty as they were, they were draining the nourishing resources of the plant away from the fruit. A paring away of external gifts or activities, no matter how delightful they are, may be necessary when you give a committed focus to something.
I’ve also learned that sometimes barriers and challenges can try get in the way of a committed focus. As most of you know, I severely sprained my ankle just as I was starting to see some progress in my AIDS Ride training, and just as I was starting to catch glimpses of the possibility of physical activity having a place in my work in the world.
Along with challenges, commitment can also lead to loss. The biggest loss that has come out of my commitment to yoga has been my needing to leave the Learners and Teachers mission group. If I want to deepen my yoga practice, I have to attend my yoga teacher’s Tuesday night intermediate yoga class, which, as you know, is the same night that Learners and Teachers meets and when the School of Christian Living is held. The pulling away from that group has been an extremely painful process, not just for me, but also for everyone in the group. Some days I’m still not convinced it was the right decision. And the group has been so loving, so encouraging and so generous in their letting go of me that truthfully, I’m not sure if that’s made the whole process easier or harder. The evening they held a separation ritual for me, I read a poem that I wrote for them, which I’d like to share with you now.
More than friends,
We hold each other’s sacred lives
In the cupped palms of our up-turned hands,
Living and breathing each other,
Pulling our divinity out
As God makes patterns in the stretched places.
The sanctity of your holding
Is my rootedness,
Grounding me deep within myself.
From your buoyant palms,
Call opens my way.
Your gentle release
Affords my soul freedom for flight.
The challenges and losses that come along with commitment test us, and require us to become very clear about what we’re about and what we believe, which in turn deepens our own sense of inner guidance. They give us the opportunity to renew our choice to be in relationship with God.
As painful as following call may be, the gospel lesson reminds us about the even greater danger of taking no action at all. It’s important that we look and see if we have said yes to God somewhere but then haven’t followed through with the commitment. Let’s not miss the goodness God is inviting us to.
Ultimately, the point of having a committed focus to what we think God is calling us to is so that we can bring it into our in our lives and work and share it with the world. I invite you think about what your covenant with God looks like right now. How is commitment evolving in your life, and what is its focus? What might be your next step to get more focused? And how will that translate into your work and being in Seekers, and in the world?
Since for now I’m committed to the yogic path, I’ll end by saying a Sanskrit blessing my yoga teacher ends each of our classes with. The words are Hare, Om, Shantih, and Namaste. Hare means God, Om means everything that there is, Shantih means peace, and Namaste is a salutation, or an acknowledgment of the divine, or Christ, in each of us. All together, the blessing means that all is well, or God is taking care of everything. When I say namaste, you should all repeat namaste back to me. So bring your hands to rest over your heart, and close your eyes. Take a deep breath in, and let it out again.
Hare om shantih, shantih, shantih, hare om peace, peace, peace. Namaste.