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Sep 04, 2022

Don’t (Just) Follow Your Passion

Don’t (Just) Follow Your Passion

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: September 2022


Today's Sermon


"Don’t (Just) Follow Your Passion"


First Reading - Isaiah 6:8
8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ 

Second Reading - Matthew 4:18-22
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

“Don’t (Just) Follow Your Passion”

            Who can tell me where in the Bible it says, “God helps those who help themselves”?  What about “God works in mysterious ways”?  “Everything happens for a reason?”  You guessed it—the answer is…nowhere.  A friend and colleague of mine, Jenny McDevitt, a pastor in Columbia South Carolina preached a whole series once on things Jesus didn’t say but we act as if he did. 

            Some of these statements are more problematic than others, and I suppose there’s a shred of truth in many of these sayings.  I cringe at “God helps those who helps themselves” because it is so often used as an excuse not to care for those in need while excusing the excesses of others, though I can acknowledge the importance of making a good faith effort in life.  I wonder what we’d add to the list, cultural aphorisms that we treat as gospel even though they aren’t.  It’s the time of year when we send young people off to college and so often tell them, “Follow your passion.”  Now on the one hand, we should recognize from the outset, what a great thing that is, that we, the fortunate among us, have the luxury of making some choices in life about what we do.  That’s a gift and we don’t want to take it for granted. 

            On the other hand, it’s a loaded statement, and potentially a set up, because it’s hard to live up to and maybe not the best ultimate guiding force anyway. How do you know what your passion is? Having a college freshman to declare their major is, for many, an absurd exercise.  Moreover, following your passion sure puts a lot of pressure on your passion to come through.  What if your passion isn’t sufficiently lucrative?  Why have we put the pressure of passion on our employment?  What if it’s not particularly responsible?  I love documentaries about mountain climbers, these people who do the most daring of feats at great risk, and often the consequences bear that out, leaving many of them dead.  Well, I guess good for them for living their passion, but what about all the others left behind?  What if we’re not actually good at discerning our true passions?  I also recently binged watched a positively wretched dating show in which couples have a certain amount of time to find their “perfect match” as determined by matchmakers.  They’re repeatedly told, “Follow your heart,” but the results are disastrous.  They’re following something, but it’s not the heart…or the heart is hard to read, just like passions are hard to find.  Psalm 139 cries out, “O Lord search my heart” precisely because the heart is hard to read. Finally, what if your passion dries up or isn’t enough to be the sustaining driving force in your life?

            This is the question author Elizabeth Gilbert asked when facing a crisis of sorts in her own life.  Gilbert was famous for writing Eat Pray Love.  Not long after that enormous success, Gilbert ran into the proverbial wall.  She couldn’t write anything compelling and was left dumbstruck.  Then a friend gave her some sage advice.  “Take a break!” she said.  Now that’s almost always good advice.  Take a break, slow down, rest, breathe.  You may lose some time, but likely far less than if you hurry off in the wrong direction again.  “Don’t worry about following your passion for a while,” she continued, “Just follow your curiosity instead.”[1]

            I don’t know about you, but when I hear that advice—just follow your curiosity—I feel lighter.  There’s less on the line.  You don’t have to find your passion, just follow your curiosities like a thread. Ask the questions you want to ask and see where it goes.  The stakes don’t have to be so high because curiosity is iterative, they change.  You can go on paying the bills while exploring your curiosities on the side because you don’t have to be all in on your passion, which, again, isn’t a fair expectation for a job. 

            Furthermore, to my opening point, Jesus never said, “Follow your passion.”  Jesus said, “Follow me.”  This is the path of the Christian.  Jesus came to the two fishers and said, come and we will fish for people.  We will gather people in who are adrift and bring them in, and they followed him, and the movement was born.  Obviously, there must have been something that captivated them about Jesus, his vision, his way.  We’re not reading a documentary account, at least one that includes all the details.  Following Jesus is about something blessedly bigger and more beautiful than we have to manufacture individually, though that’s what our culture upholds.  It’s about a new kind of kingdom in which you belong, one that brings with it all the things we try and chase with our tireless individual pursuits.  As McDevitt says, “When it comes to following your heart, you have only yourself to consult on what it means. What it looks like, or where it might lead you. When it comes to following Jesus, not only do you have a giant book of instruction, you have a whole host of disciples sharing the journey with.” 

            A word of caution.  This may sound manipulative, if you’re the appropriately suspicious sort, to externalize all authority and direction.  Haven’t I advocated in this very church for the notion of deeply trusting the intuitions of the heart and soul?[2]  While my television watching habits are on the table, I have noticed and been taken in by quite a number of cult documentaries on Netflix these days. That’s how they work – don’t trust yourself, trust me.  Trust us. This is not what I’m saying.  We never want you to give up your own volition here.  The Presbyterian Book of Order—that’s two weeks running I’m quoting from our constitution!—is adamant about importance of the personal conscience in the communal life of faith.

            The constitution is also clear that the role of the conscience is to discern the way of Christ.  This is the project.  We discern that through the Scriptures and, believe it or not, through deep listening, including a deep listening to the self.  Churches have not been immune to abuses—hypocrisies, deep failures, but when the way of Christ is truly lived out, what is experienced is beautiful, loving, meaningful, invigorating, affirming, peaceful, and lasting.  Far from completely distrusting the self, our spiritual path helps us listen and look for God deep within the self. Ignatian spirituality is based on the notion that as you pay attention to your life you can see where God is leading you.  Frederick Buechner, the great Presbyterian author I quoted extensively last week, wrote an entire book entitled Listening to Your Life.  Listen and look, within and around for Christ. 

            When I was in seminary the committee that was guiding me through the ordination process told me to visit as many different Presbyterian churches as I could, and living in the Atlanta area there were more than I could ever get to.  I replied, “That makes sense,” I said nodding along, “so I can get a sense of what I like, what styles appeal…”

            “No!” I was cut off by my liaison, “so you can see where Jesus is!”  Find where Jesus is and where the Spirit dwells in the community.  It’s not about what youlike.

            Whether you’re heading off to college or just out your front door, or the doors to your heart the advice is the same – Don’t just follow your passions.  Be curious, reflect deeply, take responsibility, ground yourself in community. Don’t let it be all about you and your ego.  Not only is it self-centering, it’s too much pressure.  Look for where Christ is at work in the world and where God is inviting you join.  Then simply echo the words of the prophet and reply, “Here I am, send me too.” 




[2]See John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth Sacred Soul.