You Need to Take This Call!
The most frequently asked question of any pastor I know, including this one, is: “How were you called into ministry?” It is a fine question, a legitimate one, an important one. But believing that God has laid claim on each one of us, not simply those of us who are “paid Christians,” I like to turn that question around. So, when asked, “How were you called into ministry?” I usually respond, “I’ll be happy to tell you, but first, tell me about God’s call on your life.”
The response I get often sounds something like this: “Who me? I could never be a “pastor,” “minister,” “priest.” “Maybe not,” I’ll say, “but you have already responded to God’s call in and out of the church by serving as a lawyer, a student, a nurse, a parent, an administrator, a writer, an elder, a deacon, a choir member. Why did you say ‘yes’ to those calls from God on your life?”
The first verses of the Book of Jeremiah describe a classic call to ministry story, but the story does not focus on why Jeremiah said “yes” to God’s call. In fact, if asked, Jeremiah would probably argue that he was not “called” into ministry at all; he was conscripted! Jeremiah has many doubts, but he never doubts God’s firm claim on his life. What Jeremiah does doubt is why God would call an inexperienced boy and untrained public speaker to speak God’s prophetic word not just to his own, disinterested nation, but to foreign nations that would have even less interest in what he had to say. As Jeremiah looks back on that unenviable and yet unmistakable prenatal call from God, he remembers not why he confidently said “yes,” but why he said in no uncertain terms, “Thanks God, but I’d rather not.”
A more recent “call and then object” story is found not in Scripture, but in Charles Dickens’, “A Christmas Carol.” The old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, gets a call from God through the haunting voice of his long deceased, former business partner, Jacob Marley. We hear a loud pounding of chains on the stairway. Then, we see Marley’s ghost arrive in Scrooge’s bedchamber. Preceded by the violent rattling of his chains, Marley urges Scrooge to break open his stone, cold heart lest he endure a similar miserable fate.
"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!"
Scrooge was very much dismayed to hear the spectre going on at this rate, and began to quake exceedingly.
"Hear me!" cried the Ghost. "My time is nearly gone."
"I will," said Scrooge. "But don't be hard upon me! Don't be flowery, Jacob! Pray!"
"How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day."
It was not an agreeable idea. Scrooge shivered, and wiped the perspiration from his brow.
"That is no light part of my penance," pursued the Ghost. "I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer."
"You were always a good friend to me," said Scrooge. "Thank `ee!"
"You will be haunted," resumed the Ghost, "by Three Spirits."
Scrooge's countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost's had done.
"Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob?" he demanded, in a faltering voice.
"I -- I think I'd rather not," said Scrooge.
"Without their visits," said the Ghost, "you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls one."
No matter how frightening the words of Jacob Marley, Jeremiah’s call was far more formidable than the three nocturnal apparitions that appeared to Ebenezer Scrooge. Is it any surprise that when God calls Jeremiah to speak harsh words to his own people, harsh words to hearts that have grown as hard as that of Ebenezer Scrooge, that the young Jeremiah responds, “I – I think I’d rather not”? Jeremiah has no more interest in his call from God than Ebenezer has in the visit of three evening ghosts.
Over the years, I have met many folks who had every good reason to balk at the call of God, to say, “Thank you, I’d rather not.” For most of church history and for many churches still today, one such group is women. And I can certainly understand when women respond: “I’d rather not pay attention to your call, God, because I am a woman and the church has told me repeatedly to keep in my place and that place does not include the pulpit, font, and table. That place is behind the scenes, making sure the men in the room have all the support they need.”
Martin Copenhaver tells the story of his grandmother who became one of the earliest UCC pastors. “My grandmother was 14 years old,” writes Martin, “and living on a farm in Michigan when she made an appointment with her Presbyterian minister to tell him that she felt called to the ministry.” The Presbyterian minister responded to Emma’s unassailable sense of call by saying, “’I’m sorry Emma. You must be mistaken. God doesn’t call women into the ministry’.” (The Christian Century, 8/2010).
For much of the church’s history and sadly, still in the Presbyterian Church USA today, another group with sound reason to balk at the call of God, to say, “Thank you, but I’d rather not” is the L,G, B,T, Q community. I can certainly understand when gay friends respond: “I’d rather not pay attention to your call, God, because I am gay and the church has repeatedly told me that I can sit in the pew if I must, but I have no business at the pulpit, font, or table.”
Sometimes our “I’d rather not” response to God has less to do with discrimination than it does with our own sense of inadequacy. “I am not smart enough, God.” “I don’t have enough education, God.” “I don’t have sufficient experience, God.” “I don’t have the patience, the tenacity, the creativity, the . . .” You fill in the blank.
All of these “I’d rather not” responses sound reasonable until you arrive at verses 7 & 8 of the first chapter of Jeremiah. In these verses, God tells Jeremiah that he is never in this call alone and that God will speak despite Jeremiah’s protests and perceived inadequacies. Or as Hebrew Bible scholar, Pat Miller argues, “Jeremiah’s worries are deemed irrelevant because the issue is not what he can or cannot do but that his activity is totally under the initiative of God” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 6, p. 582). The question for Jeremiah, for you, for me, is less “Am I up to the task, to the call of God on my life?” and more “Am I willing for God to use me/us to be a part of establishing God’s in-breaking reign in this troubled and troubling world?”
Common to every call story in Scripture, including Jeremiah’s, is that God equips those whom God calls whether it is a dry dock shipbuilder like Noah, a devoted, immigrant, daughter-in-law like Ruth, a young, runt of a shepherd-king like David, a reluctant prophet like Jeremiah or a nobody virgin like Mary. Martin’s grandmother, Emma, knew her Bible and so she never doubted her call from God or doubted that God equips those whom God calls. God equips the called to stand firm even in the face of sexism, racism or nativism, in the face of rabid fundamentalism or arrogant atheism.
Given the seriousness of what God calls us to say and do, it is only natural to respond by saying, “I’d rather not” and by asking ourselves, “How can we possibly be a mouthpiece of God?” How can we speak a word of comfort to a father whose heart has just been ripped open with the news of the car crash of his daughter? How can we stand up to legislators who try to outdo each other in demeaning and making miserable the lives of immigrants in our land? How can we speak of reconciliation to family members or nations in the world who first cite 1,000 different reasons why there can never be reconciliation? A simple answer: By ourselves, we can’t. But as Jeremiah learned at any early age. We are not by ourselves and it is not about us. It is about what God makes possible in us and through us.
Looking back on my own ministry, I have often spoken out against racism, but always from the safe confines of wearing white skin. I have often spoken out against heterosexism, but always from enjoying the safe confines of being a straight, white, male. I have often spoken out against blocking women’s leadership in the church, but most often from the safe confines of having been the head of staff in three churches of which the majority of staff were women. I have spoken out against the first and second Gulf Wars, but from the safe confines of being too old to serve as a soldier.
To this date, I have never been thrown down a cistern like Jeremiah or told that I’d be better off serving a church of my own kind or told that I am morally unfit to serve as leader of any church or told that it would be best if I kept silent in church. I have, though, had my call refined by the courage of those like Jeremiah and Martin’s grandmother, Emma, who did not go out looking for a call from God and when hearing it did not rush to enlist, but who accepted God’s claim on their lives that no person or institution or society could deny, who reminded and remind me that God is able to speak redemptive, reconciling, and life-transforming truth even through you and me.
I have had my call deepened by many of you. So, when you have a chance, tell me about God’s call on your life. I can’t wait to hear.