What’s the Next Right Thing? – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

John 14:6-14

When a man first comes to the monastery to test his vocation, you may be surprised to know that he does not get a large ‘how to’ manual on being a monk.  Nor does he receive a week-long orientation in the essentials of monastic living.  Much of what a postulant and novice learns is by observation, trial and error, and asking questions when they arise.  When he sings the Offices with the Community, (regardless of his proficiency in music fundamentals) he learns a strange musical script with a four-line staff and peculiar square notes that when stacked on top of each other means they ascend and when written in progression means they descend.  He learns that the bell rings ten minutes prior to each service although he may find himself sitting in chapel alone and confused for fifteen to twenty minutes when the Angelus bell rings at noon and no one shows up.  There is often that awkward moment when learning to acolyte that he lights the candles on the altar at noonday prayer only to have them extinguished with an explanation that candles are not lit at the noon office.  I sometimes joke that I’ve been here over five years and I’m still learning new things each week, although now they are more often epiphanies that dawn on me mysteriously, out of the blue.  For me, our lesson this evening from John’s gospel illustrates how the experience of novice monks is not dissimilar from that of Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus has gathered with them in an upper room a short time before the Passover and He knows that his betrayal and death are imminent.  Before they have a meal together, Jesus spends these last precious hours teaching and preparing them for what is about happen.  He demonstrates humility and service by washing their feet, an act that makes Peter a little anxious.  He predicts his betrayal, Peter’s denial, and His upcoming death and resurrection.  And then Jesus explains that He is going ahead to prepare a place for them saying:   ‘I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’

Yet we who are reading the story perceive that the disciples do not have a clear understanding of what Jesus is teaching. The Messiah that they had been hoping for was one who would lead an uprising to overthrow Rome and return Jerusalem to the people that God had destined to occupy it.  While all the things they had witnessed thus far with Jesus were amazing, these acts were supposed to be the prelude to the final act of which would restore the Kingdom of God, which they knew to be Jerusalem. When Jesus says, ‘I’m going ahead to prepare a place for you and I will come again and you will know the way,’ this throws them.  Thomas asks:  ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’  Jesus answers him:  ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

Philip, perhaps noticing the quizzical look on Thomas’ face and everyone’s need for clarification, adds:  ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’  Jesus’ tone suggests that He is a little disheartened and enervated at Philips request.  Even though they have all been with him for the duration of his ministry:  traveling, teaching, healing, and sharing the gospel message, that is, the good news, still they do not realize that Jesus is the icon, the image of God made visible for all to see, the Kingdom of God has already arrived, and that the Father is abiding in their midst.  Jesus says to Philip:  ‘Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.  Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.’

I have to admit that my own experience of relationship with Jesus is not dissimilar to that of the disciples.  Perceiving a call from God to the monastic life was altogether scary, exciting, and not at all what I had envisioned for myself.  Feeling certain that this was what I was called to do, I was disappointed and discouraged when it did not pull together right away.  As a matter of fact, from the moment I found SSJE on the web to my first day here as a postulant, eight-and-a-half years had passed.  I remember confiding in my parish priest at the time about my growing doubts about my vocational call and how I felt lost.  She replied, ‘Jim, if you know where you are going, God’s probably not in the call.  But if you feel lost and have no idea where this is leading, then be encouraged, because that is where Jesus is waiting to meet you and guide you.’  Those of us who choose to follow Jesus have to have patience and trust that God is giving us the tools we need in order to take the next step.  In the language of 12-step programs our prayer to God needs to be:  ‘What is the next right thing?”

In his book Hope: Moments of inspiration in a challenging world, Tim Costello tells the story of a coalminer that took his son with him into a mine shaft where he worked.  He writes:  The father told his son, ‘Wait here in this lit space, as I need to go along this tunnel.’  While the son was waiting, the light in the mine failed and he was in pitch darkness.  He screamed out for his father.  Down the tunnel he heard his father’s voice tell him to start walking toward him.  The boy cried that he couldn’t see anything.  His father asked him if the light on his helmet was on and the boy replied yes, but he could only see one step ahead.  His father said, “Well take that step.”  This happened over and over again, and the boy followed the soothing advice of his father until he finally reached the safety of his father’s strong arms.[i]

Our faith journey with Jesus is similar.  The disciples did not fully understand what Jesus was teaching them yet Jesus advised them:  Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.’  God is with us on our faith journey and while we may not fully understand all we have to do is follow him by word and example and we will come to know more fully the abundant life God wants to share with us.  Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus says:  ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.’[ii]

I said earlier that even after five years of living this monastic life, I still have moments of epiphany where I come to understand something that had often escaped me.  While an epiphany seems like a sudden and random event, the truth is epiphanies happen after a significant period of time when a final tidbit of information gathered brings something into focus and makes us say “Eureka!  I got it!”  While the ‘Eureka effect,’ (the sudden elation one experiences when having an epiphany) makes this event appear to be random, in actuality it is the end of a long process.  While the disciples had spent three years with Jesus, witnessing and assisting in His ministry, they did not have all the information they needed to fully understand and perceive just what it is that He was trying to do.   They would not fully understand and comprehend until after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and then reappearing to them, showing them His wounds and breaking bread with them.  It is then they can utter like Thomas with confidence and recognition:   “My Lord and my God!”[iii]

Perhaps at this moment in your journey with Jesus you find yourself in a similar place, not seeing or perceiving how God is working in your life, how He is present with you amidst the worlds bewildering confusion and suffering.  If so, take Jesus at His word:  We will come to know God’s presence with us by following the example of Jesus:  by teaching and healing, listening to our neighbors, both known and unknown to us; by doing acts of love and mercy even in the face of those who wish us ill.  It is in articulating in our prayer our desire to know the Father and reaching out to receive a piece of bread that we will take a step closer to the One  who knows us by name and will not let us perish but give us life abundant.  Amen

[i]Costello, Tim. Hope: Moments of Inspiration in a Challenging World. Richmond, Vic.: Hardie Grant, 2012. Print.

[ii]John 10:27-30

[iii]John 20:19-31

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  1. Andrew Malcolm on December 21, 2022 at 07:12

    Regardless how far we feel we have travelled in our faith there are always those epiphanies you speak of Brother Jim – marvellous, wondrous occasions. Reading your word today simply settled my mind in many areas. Thank you.

  2. David Cranmer on May 18, 2020 at 21:49

    What your priest told you about if you know where you are going, then probably God is not in it, really struck me as a profound piece of advice. Right now I am listening to a series on the faith and life of Abraham. The person leading the series keeps circling back to the fact that God called Abraham to leave Ur and go to a place that He would show him. This sounds exactly like what your priest was telling you. Thanks for bringing this ancient wisdom into my life of today.

  3. Juanita on May 18, 2020 at 17:57

    Brother Jim,
    Your sermon ‘What’s the next right thing’ really spoke to me, at a time when I am discerning my next church and Covenant with the Diaconate. It also took me back, to two years ago, when I was an Intern in an Anglo-Catholic church…which seemed so foreign to my Anglican upbringing…and I eventually realized (as, you commented), there is no ‘how to’ book given…but to just relax and realize: Here I am Lord!… and (try to) let vanity and personal expectations go out the window as for better or worse, its gonna be a hit n miss experience and in God’s time. In retrospect, it has been one of my greatest teachers and continues to hold a special place in my heart…as does the ministry and teachings of SSJE – I always learn or feel inspired from each sermon that I hear. Always so professional, but also so down-to-earth and from the heart. I also identified with much you said in your sermon with respect to discernment…as it is never ending, but particularly present to me at this time. How right you are when you say if we are sure to where we are going it is not truly where we are called..and when we have no idea…surely that is when the door will open to us to where Spirit is preparing a place for us to minister…and all we need to take with us is patience, courage and to listen with the ears of our heart, to find our way forward…. Blessings Juanita

  4. Nicki Bourne on May 18, 2020 at 14:02

    Thank you again Brother Jim. It’s always exciting to see how a good message can stir one all over again, 3 1/2years later, I love your insertions of now comical confessions of your wandering in the wilderness of becoming a Monk, They are so honest and yes, encouraging. And this time I have understood Jesus’ words to his disciples a lot better, in another time of “bewildering confusion and suffering” . You speak so straight from the heart and your wisdom, it always gives me renewed hope to read your messages.
    Thank you,
    Nicki Bourne

  5. Dr. Russell Carter on May 18, 2020 at 11:22

    I went into the hospital on May 14th for major back surgery. When they opened my abdomen, one of my blood vessels ruptured and I lost over 3 pints of blood. They fixed the problem but did not go n with the back fusion. Obviously, I was very weak in recovery. But along with the loving care of the nurses in recovery, I felt the presence of several angels floating above me, and, I felt a warmth embracing me that felt so comforting and so reassuring. I am convinced that the presence I felt was God protecting me as He did while I was in surgery. I do know what Jesus means to me in my life.this is the second time I my life, when I should have died, but for the grace of God, I am still able to continuing bringing God’s love to others through my prayer ministry.

  6. Margaret Dungan on June 8, 2019 at 10:19

    Br. Jim I would like to thank you for these words and the follow up words of SusanMarie and Jim Doran. They brought back an experience in my own life but were also like a light on my present path at this particular time. Thank you you all.


  7. Pat on June 8, 2019 at 08:48

    Exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you, Jim!

  8. John Harlan on December 6, 2017 at 17:24

    When one has 4 life flashes in one’s life with 3 can be remembered where a very fast movie of past life events appears and you gain your presence after not understanding what has happened while friends as witnesses ask how you did that I answer it wasn’t me. When going to have cancer surgery in 14 to 16 open waiting areas of the pre-op exam rooms I was approached by a person who looked scared, I could feel the actual weight of fear in each one of 14 to 16 people and would explain my situation and listen to their situations as they would exhort anger, saying they are afraid of dying and so much of their soul was wounded. My response was the same, “why are you mad or angry? we, being each of us know that we are eventually going to die so what are you mad and afraid of’? I could start feeling the weight being lifted literally, and I would say, “live each moment of your life to the fullest, get to the place that you are happy and not fear the inevitable”. The nurses in each of these pre-op areas would in unison say, “Devine Providence”. Things here get more confusing to understand but I’m constantly talking about pain, suffering and living through it happy and living life as much as I can. Many stories of this and other events but I will say another profound story about working and driving to customers’ accounts(businesses) where driving down a highway I saw a man walking along side of the freeway with long hair and loose clothing. When I got to the first account there he was standing there which was at least 30-40 miles away. At first, I didn’t connect the dots until when I came out he was gone. Then later in the early evening I was coming out of the last account and an elderly man was rummaging through a dumpster. I asked him if he was ok and he responding that the chicken place throws food out that wasn’t sold and he takes it to his family. I said wait a minute and gave him over a hundred dollars for him and his family. His tears were so pure I didn’t know what to do except I well up after each of these moments (even now telling this) and I said God Bless You. I write this because my work doesn’t excite me anymore but I need to earn a living and I feel that I’m not doing what Christ wants me to be or to do. So, I rest these words of a portion of my life with more situations as these have occurred.

  9. Nicki Bourne on December 6, 2017 at 14:54

    This is so reassuring and allows us to be just as human as we are, as we cautiously yet happily give ourselves to God. Thank you Brother Jim!

  10. SusanMarie on December 6, 2017 at 06:37

    “if you know where you are going, God’s probably not in the call. But if you feel lost and have no idea where this is leading, then be encouraged, because that is where Jesus is waiting to meet you and guide you.” This may be one of the truest things I’ve ever read. Your entire sermon was affirming and inspiring for me. Thank you!

  11. Jim Doran on May 3, 2017 at 11:30

    “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” ― E.L. Doctorow,

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