Grant us … in our direst need, the smallest gifts:This week has included some of those small gifts in need for me: a conversation, the prayer, the one right word, the insights, the reminder: "We are all, every living one of us, doorways between the two realms, that of matter that gives us birth, and that of spirit into which we are born in death." Paladin of Souls, p. 385 (See last week's post about doorways...)
the nail of the horseshoe,
the pin of the axle,
the feather at the pivot point,
the pebble at the mountain's peak,
the kiss in despair,
the one right word.
In darkness, understanding.
Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold, (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), p. 44
This past week I met with my association's representative on ministry and ordination. She asked, "How were you called?" Not, "where were you when you were called?" Not even, "what are you called to do or to be?" And not, "how are you confirmed in your call?" Those are all good questions to be able to answer, but they are not the first question.
People preparing for ministry or priesthood often get asked if they have "a call." For some, it's an embarrassing question. They think the pastorate or priesthood may be what they're supposed to do with their lives, but that word "call" suggests some kind of voice from heaven that corresponds to nothing in their experience. Perhaps it evokes memories of an old Bill Cosby routine about Noah's ark, in which a deep bass voice calls out from above, "NOAH! NOAH! THIS IS THE LORD, NOAH!" Cosby, a nervous grin on his face, looks upward and says, "Yeeeah! Riiiight!"As I have been reviewing the facts, figures and stories about clergy and congregations, and in my own experience of being a part of the ordination process, something has become clear to me: in order to do "right" by clergy placement and retention, as well as by the congregations in which we minister, we need to provide ways and frameworks to understand, articulate and nurture our calls, both as clergy and as members of congregations, and as congregations as a whole.
Is that what it means to have God call you? Could most of us imagine such a strange event happening to us?
William C. Placher, ed., Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), p. 2
How are you called?
In many traditions, calls—in the form of sounds—precede prayer, rites of initiation, spiritual healings, and major life events. The purpose of calls is to summon adherents away from their daily grinds to a new level of awareness, into a scared frame of mind, into communion with that which is bigger than themselves. The calls may come from bull-roarers, trumpets, rattles, wooden clackers, songs, bells, or the chanting of muezzins atop minarets.What is your trumpet, your bull-roarer, your song? How are you called? Since I heard this song by Mary Chapin Carpenter in 2007, it has been helpful in the way I understand calling, perhaps as "stumbling and falling," but as something that is deep, that I can't turn away from, perhaps as something in my blood that I can't quite articulate, even though people still ask. It's not certainty or lack of fear—that I know, even though I would like it to be.
In the primary creation myth of Western cosmology, the very first call came through the voice that said "Let there be light," and there was light, the words then becoming flesh. Every call since then has also been a call to form, a call to each of us to materialize ourselves.
Greg Levoy, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997), p. 2
Deep in your blood or a voice in your head
On a dark lonesome highway
It finds you instead
So certain it knows you, you can't turn away
Something or someone has found you today
Genius or Jesus, maybe he's seen us
But who would believe us
I can't really say
Whatever the calling, the stumbling or falling
You follow it knowing
There's no other way, there's no other way
There are zealots and preachers
And readers of dreams
The righteous yell loudest
And the saved rise to sing
The lonely and lost are just waiting to hear
Any moment their purpose
Will be perfectly clear
And then life would mean more
Than their name on their door
And that far distant shore that's so near
They'd hear the calling
And stumbling and falling
They'd follow it knowing
There's nothing to fear
Nothing to fear
I don't remember a voice
On a dark, lonesome road
When I started this journey so long ago
I was only just trying to outrun the noise
There was never a question of having a choice
Jesus or genie, maybe they've seen me
But who would believe me
I can't really say
Whatever the calling, the stumbling and falling
I followed it knowing there's no other way
Jesus or genie, maybe he's seen me
But who would believe me
I can't really say
Whatever the calling, stumbling and falling
I got through it knowing there's no other way
There's no other way
"The Calling" by Mary Chapin Carpenter, album: The Calling
How do you articulate your call or calls? Call is mysterious. Call is scary. I often think of the prophet Samuel as a boy, wakened from sleep, hearing his name called, "Samuel, Samuel!" and thinking that it was Eli whom he served, he ran into Eli's room: "Here I am, you called me?" Eli said, "No, I did not call. Go back to sleep." This happened three times, and then Eli, who was a priest, realized that perhaps some more powerful call was happening, a call from God, and told Samuel that if the call came again to answer, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." God called again, and Samuel answered, "Speak, for your servant is listening." God then told Samuel what would be happening to Eli's sons because they were not fulfilling their hereditary priestly duties. [1 Samuel 3]
Most of us though don't get the kind of call that Samuel got: God's voice speaking to us in the night. Or maybe we do, and we don't have an Eli nearby who tells us to listen and respond. Or maybe the Eli in our life doesn't appear for a long time. When I was a girl, I pretended that our high backed recliner was a pulpit and I was the preacher. Even then I felt silenced by the church where I was raised that didn't ordain women or even have women deacons, because I never preached a sermon aloud, only in my head, looking out the window. Was that God's call? Over the years, I forgot that I had ever stood behind the chair imagining…
God is patient, … and persistent. After college I left the church, sure that it had no place for the person I was. For a while, I stopped being involved with music and singing because music was and is a pathway to God for me. I sat at desks and computers and looked at numbers and systems and was disgusted by corporate politics. I learned to make presentations, and became more comfortable with public speaking. Then, one Easter Sunday, on a whim, I went to an ecumenical sunrise service in a park near where I lived. The minister was a woman who had brought along a portable tape player for music. Even at 6 a.m., I could sing out, "Christ Arose." I think the minister was surprised, because she only expected a mumble from the dozen of us there, as was I, for different reasons, that I found that song in my heart and memory. And, after a while, I joined a community chorus and started singing again. A year or so later I started going to church, mostly to sing in the choir. I left that church to look for one that felt more like home. My church home became a small, welcoming Baptist congregation with an emphasis on inclusive language and lay ministry among other social justice concerns. Once there, I began to participate in worship leading, and then occasionally as a summer preacher.
My Eli came along nearly 35 years after standing behind the high backed recliner in my parent's living room, in the person of Harvey Cox, theologian, author, professor at Harvard Divinity School, and member of that church, who came up to me after I preached one summer Sunday. "Nancy, do you know why you are walking funny?" I may have looked down at my shoes to see if I'd lost a heel or something. "No. Why?" I asked. Harvey replied. "It's because God is kicking you in the behind to get you to go to seminary and do this work that you are called to do."
"Speak, Lord, your servant is listening."
Who is your Eli? How do you articulate your call or calls? How are you called?
How do you nurture and clarify your call, as clergy and as a congregation? This is the work of the Spirit, perhaps the work of the church—to begin to know and understand what we really are to do, and then to do it. Frederick Buechner is often and aptly quoted,
The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've probably met requirements (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren't helping your patients much either.
Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.
Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life, San Francisco: Harpers, 1992, p. 185-6
We need to find ways to know or find our deep gladness, our passions, and our joys, and then find ways to hear and understand the world's deep needs and hungers. In an individual, we might ask what are your gifts, and I turn to Ephesians 4: 7-14 or Romans 12: 2-8 for a list of the gifts given to members of the body of believers. From there, in a congregation, we might use a tool called appreciative inquiry, and appreciate those gifts.
Through structured interviews the process identifies the healthiest, most life-producing aspects of a congregation and then builds upon those strengths to create a new future. … Appreciative inquiry poses questions that ask us to attend to the best of the past and present to ignite the collective imagination of what might be. The aim is to generate new knowledge that expands the "realm of the possible" and helps members of an organization envision a collectively desired future. It enables them to carry forth that vision in ways that successfully translate images of possibility or intentions into reality, and belief into practice.What are your gifts and deep gladness? Where are your strengths? How are you called? I'd be glad to hear your comments about your calling(s).
From the work of David Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry Consultant's Manual, quoted in Dennis Campbell, Congregations as Learning Communities, (Alban Institute, 2000), p. 27