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An excerpt from Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer 1
You could do worse—much worse—than to think of the Bible as a series of great stories about how God does amazing things in the world through ordinary—and sometimes much worse than ordinary—people, a series of stories showing that God loves the world by changing lives, one person at a time.
*Abraham and Sarah, called from a comfortable, if childless, old age to the life-changing world of parenthood in a land they did not know.
*Jacob, who deceived his father and robbed his brother, but was promised God’s faithfulness and called to be father of a nation.
*Moses, adopted royal son-turned-murderer and fugitive, called from a burning bush to become liberator of an entire people.
*Samuel, an acolyte who kept hearing a voice in the middle of the night. He was confused, but after he said, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening,” everything changed.
*Isaiah: A young priest at worship who heard a voice saying, “Whom shall I send to do justice, and who will go for us?” and he answered, “Here I am. Send me.”
*Jonah, and that whole belly-of-a-great-fish thing, all because he resisted his call to preach good news to the enemy.
*Esther, a queen brave enough to entertain the possibility that she had been born for “such a time as this.” She stuck her neck out and ended up saving her people from genocide.
*Mary, a young girl visited by an angel and, upon being offered the holiest of jobs, said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be …”
*Peter and Andrew, James and John, and eight others called to follow Jesus of Nazareth, who was himself called beloved as he came up from the waters of baptism. Remember how Peter, who had denied his lord and disgraced himself near a mid-night courtyard fire, was, alongside the glowing embers of a sunrise beach breakfast, called back from his own self-recrimination and aimlessness to love God’s people as no one else could.
And if the Bible is chock-full of stories of God calling and loving people into grace and greatness, holiness and wholeness, what does that tell us about the spiritual life?
Some might say that the life of faith is always about listening for and responding to God’s call on our lives, about figuring out who and whose we are. Some might say this has less to do with God needing a particular person to do a particular thing than with our needing the Spirit of love and power to redeem and restore us, to help us become the people we were created to be.
And if, in the Bible, God’s call to a joy-filled life comes via visions and voices, dreams and dares, light and love, what does that suggest about how a still-speaking God might work in and through everyone and everything in our lives?
I think about Dorothy Day, praying in a chapel at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington and then, upon returning to New York, meeting Peter Maurin, with whom she would found the Catholic Worker movement. I think about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sitting at his kitchen table in the middle of the night after getting another threatening telephone call. I think about books I’ve read, people I’ve met, too many “coincidences” to count, and a early spring afternoon in a backyard garden overgrown with weeds.
*Your name goes here.
I certainly think about the stories you’ve told me about your own lives. But I also wonder sometimes if it’s not our skepticism, doubt, and fear and other people’s expectations that require God to move in such mysterious ways, her wonders to perform.
Parker Palmer says that our sense of calling or vocation “does not come from a voice out there calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice in here calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”
For Palmer and for Frederick Buechner, “vocation begins . . . in what brings [us] joy”; we discover our calling when the inner voice we hear is a shout of joy. Howard Thurman described vocation as whatever it is that makes us come alive. But our experience may not always start out that way. The writer Glennon Doyle Melton says our life purpose is revealed when pay attention to the situations that break our heart.
Whether Saul saw a light and heard a voice from “out there,” or simply tired of a brilliant career in sending faithful people to prison and death, he surely needed to be saved from his self-righteousness, closed heart and spiritual blindness. Our story tells us that it was after Saul’s road-to-Damascus experience that he “got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing.” But I would bet that Saul’s vision impairment began long before he headed to Damascus.
And so his conversion began. But conversion is neither a one-time thing nor a straight line from here to there. It is a life-long, Spirit-born, community-midwifed process of death, resurrection and transformation, and Saul needed the brave faithfulness of another man to restore his sight and set him on the right path.
And so it is that each of us has our own holy calling—not to be Moses or Paul, MLK or Dorothy Day, not necessarily to be the pastor or the moderator, a deacon or a welcomer, the Sunday school teacher, Caring Companion or Coffee Hour host, but to be ourselves, to answer our call, to discover our own ministry, to serve God and love God’s people by walking the path that fills us with joy.
Not that it will always feel good. Consider poor Ananias, called by Jesus in a vision to minister to his worst enemy, the very man who was coming to town to send him, his friends and family to prison, torture, and possibly worse. Perhaps Ananias also needed a little more conversion—away from fear and loathing and his own spiritual blindness, toward trust and compassion, toward an awareness that everyone is a child of God, toward a willingness to consider that God can work through anyone and anything.
Ananias answered his calling when he said, “Here I am, Lord”; his deeper healing began when he went to minister to his enemy. Saul’s conversion began in earnest the moment Ananias laid his hands on him and called him brother. Scales fell from his eyes, and walls crumbled in his heart.
And so it is that the vitality of the church requires every one of us to be true to our own ministry. So it is that the hope of the world lies in each of us following our own calling—callings and ministries that may change over the different seasons of our lives. Our experiences are meant not only for us, our joy is not ours alone; our gifts are given to be shared, our passions ignited to bring healing and hope and new life. Even our wounds and needs provide opportunities for others to live out their callings and deepen their gladness.
Now, I’m guessing that Ananias’s family and friends thought he had lost his mind. They might have wept and wailed and torn their clothes, thinking they’d never lay eyes on him again, as Ananias set out for the street called Straight to meet the zealous tyrant named Saul.
And so it is that one person’s dream job may be another’s nightmare, that one person’s calling may be another’s least favorite thing, that one person’s joy might give cause another to break out in a cold sweat, and that one church member’s ministry may seem downright odd to another. (I am fully aware that some of you consider Blessings to Go an embarrassment, but it brings me great joy; the blessings I offer to others are the blessings I need to hear.)
And what could be better than a church full of called, joyful people following Jesus and blessing the world in their own odd ways? Perhaps a church whose called, joyful people make a regular practice of celebrating one another’s particular, important, life-saving, world-changing, sight-restoring, heart-healing, and odd ministries.
And so that is one of the things we are about in this season of resurrection and new life. On Pentecost Sunday we will name, honor and bless our individual ministries and gifts and how the Spirit uses them in this church and in the world. In love and joy and hope we will be commissioned, one and all.
Between now and then, won’t you spend some timing reflecting on your own calling? Won’t you ask Spirit how you can best partner with God in loving the world? Won’t you share with us how your deep gladness and the world’s deep need come together?
Our scriptures tell us that God calls us by name. Our tradition teaches us that God calls us in love, for love. Our hearts reveal that God calls us to joy.
Here we are, Lord.
Here we are.
Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
Buechner’s definition starts with the self and moves toward the needs of the world: it begins, wisely, where vocation begins—not in what the world needs (which is everything), but in the nature of the human self, in what brings the self joy, the deep joy of knowing that we are here on earth to be the gifts that God created.
Contrary to the conventions of our thinly moralistic culture, this emphasis on gladness and selfhood is not selfish. The Quaker teacher Douglas Steere was fond of saying that the ancient human question “Who am I?” leads inevitably to the equally important question “Whose am I?”—for there is no selfhood outside of relationship. We must ask the question of selfhood and answer it as honestly as we can, no matter where it takes us. Only as we do so can we discover the community of our lives.