For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘call

For my Epiphany sermon at St. Luke’s on January 4, I was inspired by the If You Give… children’s book series by author Laura Numeroff and illustrator Felicia Bond, best known for If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you don’t know this series, you’re missing out, and I recommend watching the video below to catch up.

I noticed how the magi set out to do one thing–follow the star to a king–and ended up doing much more than they ever expected. Just like the mouse in the story, saying “yes” to a request from God often ends up to be a whole lot more complicated and involved that we expect.

For the sermon, I read the congregation If You Take a Mouse to the Movies, a holiday-themed book in the series, and talked about the unexpected turns in the magi’s journey. Then, inspired by Numeroff, I wrote my own Epiphany-themed version of If You Give… called “If You Go Where God Sends You.” It captures many themes from the magi, but also my own experiences with following God to unexpected places. I hope you enjoy it.

Epiphany 1

If you go where God sends you,

You’ll probably follow a dim light in the distance.

If you follow a dim light in the distance,

You probably won’t know exactly where you’re going,

but you should go anyway.

 

If you don’t know exactly where you’re going,

You’ll probably end up taking a few detours.

If you take a few detours,

You’ll probably take a wrong turn.

If you take a wrong turn, God will use that part of the journey as well,

so don’t fret about it.

 

While you are on a detour,

You’ll probably meet a few new people.

If you meet a few new people,

You may encounter some new ideas.

If you encounter some new ideas,

You might just find that your old ideas have changed.

When your old ideas have changed,

You might just find that you have changed.

 

The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages chez Hérode) - James Tissot

The Magi in the House of Herod (Les rois mages chez Hérode) – James Tissot

When you have changed,

Some of people won’t like it, and you may discover they are unkind.

If you discover people who are unkind,

God might just ask you to help stop them from hurting others.

When God asks for your help in standing up to unkind people,

Chances are those unkind people are not going to like you very much.

If they don’t like you very much,

They may try to hurt you or hurt someone else.

If they try to hurt you or hurt someone else,

You’re going to have to listen to God even harder.

If you listen to God even harder,

God will probably tell you to go a different way.

 

Once you are going a different way, still following that dim light in the sky,

The light will eventually guide you to where you’re supposed to go.

But when you get there, God might not provide what you expect.

Even if it’s not what you expect, you’ll know it’s God, that it’s holy,

That it’s where you’re supposed to be.

You’ll know it because, instead of a dim light in the distance,

You’ll discover God’s light deep inside of you.

Epiphany 3

When you discover God’s light deep inside you,

You’ll want to give everything you have to God.

When you give everything you have to God,

You search your possessions, your gold,

Your titles, your precious treasures,

All the things that make you feel secure,

And give them away.

 

Once you have given everything away,

You’ll think you have arrived where God sent you.

When you think you have arrived where God sent you,

You’ll notice a dim light in the distance.

If you follow the dim light in the distance,

You probably won’t know exactly where you’re going,

but you should go anyway.

Epiphany 4

Ears to Hear: Recognizing and Responding to God’s Call, Edward S. Little, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA, 2003, 154 pp.

Ears to HearAs I have written here before, I can’t resist a good looking book about God’s call. It’s one of those topics that I spend a lot of time contemplating, and I am always hungry for new perspectives. According to a note on the title page, I purchased this one back in 2006, and it has been resting on my “to-be-read” shelf until it called out to me just a few weeks ago. It was just what I needed right now.

Little’s approach to the topic of call is through a scriptural study of various call stories in the Hebrew Bible. I appreciated Little’s opening definition of call, which immediately expands not only beyond ordained ministry, but beyond individuals and beyond roles within the church.

God’s call is this: God’s sovereign invitation to individuals and communities in which he bids them to new life and service. (4)

How can I be holy in my workplace? How can I be holy in my neighborhood? How can I be holy in my home, where my spouse and children see me as I really am? Holiness is not a vague, unfocused “goodness.” It involves being Jesus’ person wherever we are. This is both a call and a challenge. (6)

The book contains sixteen chapters, each a case study of a biblical call story. Little covers the typical stories of Abraham, Moses, Samuel and Isaiah, but reaches far beyond them to more obscure figures like Hosea, Amos, Zerubbabel, and even Bezalel and Oholiab. From each, Little draws observations and conclusions about how God’s call works in different kinds of circumstances. While some of his bullet points were a bit too pithy for me, the analysis and perspective he reads into the various stories moved me.

I loved this passage from the chapter on Abraham, titled “Called to Insecurity.”

God called Abraham to move from security to insecurity, from the known to the unknown, from the predictable to the unpredictable, singling him out to be the model of obedient and costly faith. (14)

I was especially touched by the chapters on Joshua, Jeremiah and Zerubbabel, because they addressed “dry times,” burnout and “fade out,” which speak to the kind of renewal of call I am currently seeking. Reading this reflection on burnout through the story of Jeremiah, I found my heart saying, “yes, yes, yes!”

His question–and ours–isn’t How can I avoid burnout? We cannot! Rather, the question is, What does the Lord do to help me survive it and come through with my faith and obedience intact. (129)

The same thing applied to his naming of “fade out” in Zerubbabel’s story as “when the tyranny of immediate concerns places God’s call on the back burner.” (138) Those were exactly the concerns in my own spirit that prompted me to pull this one off the shelf, and his words were a gift. I can imagine other times in my life when I would respond more powerfully to other chapters and other stories.

This book is well-designed for a small group study, although 16 sessions is a lot to arrange. There are discussion questions at the end of each chapter for that purpose. I can imagine returning to this book as a resource when I teach or preach another series on God’s call, or when I again need some spiritual uplift about my own call from God, as I often do (which is why I keep buying and reading books on this topic.)

Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Eugene H. Peterson, Eerdmans, 1992, 197 pp.

Under-the-unpredictable-plant1This book was just what I needed at this moment in my personal and professional spiritual life. Eugene Peterson always challenges me as a pastor and a person, even though I do not always agree with his assessments. Under the Unpredictable Plant posed just the questions I have been asking about my own vocation in ministry, and offered a rich depth of responses. Many of the ideas reappear in The Pastor, but this is a different arc on the theme.

The structure of the book follows the book of Jonah, and the image of the prophet who declines to follow God’s command, then finds himself confined in the belly of the fish, then makes his way reluctantly to Ninevah, only to find himself upset by both success and failure. Peterson begins in the introduction to discuss the gap between “personal faith and pastoral vocation.” It is a chasm I know as well–when it seems like following God will upset “successful” ministry, or when “successful” ministry seems to cost personal spirituality. I awakened to it most dramatically during my sabbatical last year, when I again found the time and space to be a Christian first, pastor second. However, the truth remains that my spiritual relationship with God is always lived out in my pastoral vocation.

I always appreciate his wisdom on the mundane nature of most pastoral tasks, and the beauty that lies therein.

The pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation… Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds… There is much that is glorious on pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious. The congregation is a Ninevah-like place: a place for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts. But somebody has to do it, has to faithfully give personal visibility to the continuities of the word of God in the place of worship and prayer, in the places of daily work and play, in the traffic jams of virtue and sin. (16)

Peterson offers a scathing critique of contemporary pastoral ministry, especially its emphasis on programs, numbers, and efficiency. He gives a graceful description of what the pastoral vocation should instead be: the task of bearing witness to Christ in the daily tasks of people’s lives:

We are there in our congregation to say God in a grammar of direct address. We are there for one reason and one reason only: to preach and to pray (the two primary modes of our address). … We have no other task. We are not needed to add to what is already there. We are required only to say the name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (86-87)

While I found his critique true in many ways, and I want to honor that central pastoral task, I question whether the vocation he describes is possible in today’s congregations. While his interpretation of the pastor is spiritually and biblically sound, it is not necessarily financially sound in today’s shrinking ecclesiastical reality. Or, while we probably should be spending all our time and energy in biblical reflection and spiritual direction, we will not likely be able to earn a full-time salary doing so. Which may or may not be a positive thing–because the biblical prophets and pastors were fairly bi-vocational themselves, rarely paid for doing the Lord’s work, and never expected to run programs, grow churches or “service” a congregation. Perhaps a return to what really matters in this pastoral work–preaching and prayer–will not fund our pensions, but will revive the meaning of the vocation. Yet that is a tough choice for those of us already enmeshed in full-time ministerial work.

I imagine I will return to Peterson’s work again in the future, as a reminder of the struggles and purpose of my vocation. It is too easy to lose my way, and Peterson helps me find it again.

Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer, Jossey-Bass, 2000, 117 pp.

This has been one of my favorite books on one of my favorite topics since I first discovered it and read it ten years ago. There are very few books that I reread over and over, and this is one of them. There are even fewer books that I refuse to lend out to anyone, because I always want to have them around for reference. This is also one of those books. I recently reread it again, cover-to-cover, in preparation for a retreat with other pastors forming a new long-term group for professional development in mid-career. As always, the book offered new insights and renewed depth to my thoughts on my own vocation.

Parker Palmer tells his own story through this book—his search for vocation, his successes that turned out to be failures and failures that were really successes, his battle with depression, and his connection to Quaker spiritual practice. The book’s title comes from an old Quaker saying: “let your life speak.” Palmer talks about his youthful misunderstanding that this meant he needed to create a meaningful life that would speak powerful as a witness to the world. Instead, the wisdom of the book is quite the opposite:

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent. (3)

Palmer speaks with great wisdom about the time it takes to become yourself (a phrase borrowed from a May Sarton poem); about how closing doors and missed opportunities shape our lives as much as possibilities and openings; about the fundamental “birthright gifts” each person has for vocation; and about setting limits and caring for self as stewardship of our gifts. He even has a chapter on leadership, where he talks about the importance of spiritual depth and introspection to leadership. His final chapter uses the metaphor of seasons to understand the cycles of vocation throughout our lives.

As I read this again this time around, I realized that this is a wonderful book about vocation at mid-life. This is a far cry from What Color Is Your Parachute? Instead of searching desperately for the person you should become, Palmer urges us to be still and discover the person that you already are. Therein lies the wisdom for understanding vocation.

I am tempted to start typing some of my favorite quotations from this book, but there are simply too many to choose. If you don’t know Let Your Life Speak, you should, and you should recommend it to anyone you know who is seeking their path and purpose in life. I have shared it with many people, and all have found it deeply insightful.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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