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Called to go? Called to what?
Rev. Katie Stein Sather, November 9, 2003
There's a holiday this week. It's the time of the year when we stop to remember the contributions made by soldiers in wartime to our society. As a novice tuba player in Lacombe, Alberta's community band, I was introduced to the Canadian way of celebrating Remembrance Day. Parades, complete with bands and ever-diminishing numbers of aging veterans marching down main street, and wreaths laid at cenotaphs all across Canada. Poppies appear in malls and on lapels. Speeches and prayers are spoken at town celebrations. National observances are on TV. Often, the emphasis is on the sacrifice of those who went to war to save our particular version of civilization. Sometimes, the glory of war overrides the necessity of war to make the peace. Almost always, reference is made to the ultimate sacrifice, meaning death.
Today, I wish to consider what prompted them to go to war in the first place. What kind of call were they responding to? Has that sense of call disappeared from society? What is my call to ministry about, and, what is your call in this world?
This week I spoke to my father, a World War II veteran, about what things were like as a high school kid in the forties. He said everyone wanted to go to the war, indeed they were afraid it would be all over before they could get there. He signed up as soon as he could, and was off immediately after he graduated from high school. It was a call to patriotism, to idealism for our kind of world. The call was clear, and loud. Everyone was repeating it.
My father tells his stories easily and often, and so I know that he had a few not so nice times-to truly understate his experience, but in general he enjoyed his time in the US Army. He got to see the world-at least some of the Philippines, and Okinawa, and several parts of the US that he had never seen before. As a depression era farm kid, he had pretty much stayed close to home. His call to arms was clear and well supported by his times and culture, and he came home all in one piece physically.
At that particular moment in history, the still small voice within was an echo of the wider world. It was easy to make a decision about what to do with your life as an able-bodied young man graduating from school, and entering the work force. Now that that particular war is behind us, it's not so easy to heed a call, even if it is heard.
What is a call? I don't know that I can answer that question for anyone else, but let me tell you about what I've experienced.
Most of you know that I am an avid canoeist. I've worked as an instructor and tripping guide. Indeed, I have enjoyed quite a number of wilderness canoe trips. Al and I have paddled in such far-flung places as the Baja Peninsula off Mexico's west coast, the Queen Charlotte Islands, and the east coast of Newfoundland, and quite a number of rivers in between. For two summers, I guided tourists, mostly from Paris, on 10 to 14 day trips in Quebec, in my rather elementary French. I looked for paying jobs around canoeing because I wanted to get in more paddling than Al's work schedule would allow-and perhaps more than he wanted to do anyway.
One glorious summer, I was able to string together enough trips that over July and August, I spent 40 days in a canoe. Forty days of following my bliss, as Joseph Campbell says. Forty days, that biblical number that means for a very long time. The rest of the time I lived in a tiny village on the edge of Saskatchewan's Churchill River. I was only steps away from the wild that whole summer—nirvana.
Wilderness definitely calls me. I had found a job as a guide in an attempt to answer that call. I've wondered so much about this attraction that my master's thesis was about that connection between nature and spirituality. I explored the nature of wilderness academically, and then carefully questioned a few of my paddling friends about why they felt so compelled to return to wilderness. I was hardly a neutral observer and certainly included my own opinion and feelings along with theirs.
The most succinct answer, from a conservative fundamentalist Christian very comfortable with God-language, was 'we all have a God-shaped vacuum in us.' He meant that it exerted a suction, a calling, that was not resistible. God, was, of course, all over the wilderness. To be authentically ourselves, we had to answer, 'Yes!'
You may think about the word 'call' as regarding religious vocations, or perhaps in stories like the prophet Jonah who was swallowed by a whale because he didn't want to heed God's call. Jonah ended up in the belly of a great fish when he tried to escape by sailing away. However, a big storm came up, and since he knew he was the cause, he jumped overboard. The sea calmed and so the rest of the men were safe, but the great fish ate Jonah. When he relented after three days, and agreed to follow God's bidding, the whale vomited him up on the beach, and off he went to preach in Nineveh. When you say yes to a call, you get your life back.
A call is something you cannot avoid, it appears, even when you'd rather not answer it. This is reflected in the rather standard advice given to folks wondering if they should go into ministry, 'Don't do it unless you have to.' The 'have to' part is the call doing its thing. It's rather like going blindly into the future. You don't know where you might end up, or even what you might end up doing. If there is something else in your life that is fulfilling, it would be easier to just do that. However, not everyone can avoid their call. It becomes a central issue in your life and won't let you go.
That's certainly how I experienced the call to ministry. The poem 'Call to Adventure' that I read earlier is from my own experience, remembering how I heard it. It reflects a dream I remembered one morning-and I usually don't even remember that I dreamed, much less any details, less than two years after I became a UU. It was too scary, and so I tried to put it away. Except it kept calling back-no, not the dream, but the idea. I was not able to avoid it. I didn't know what 'it' would mean in my life. I just knew there was this inner prompting to go back to university, something I cognitively did NOT want to do, and become a minister. I wasn't even sure I knew what that meant.
I used to say, before I entered seminary, that I knew a lot about wandering around the Canadian wilderness. It was the urban jungle I didn't know anything about. Look where I am, and have been. Metro Detroit. Greater Vancouver. This call stuff can get you into a lot of unknown territory, whether it's wilderness or not!
A ministerial vocation is a calling to a particular kind of life. There are other kinds of life to which one can be called, as well. Rev. Richard Gilbert said it this way at the 2001 General Assembly's Service of the Living Tradition, 'Vocation is not choosing a career; it is being open to the invitation life extends to each and every one of us to become fully and responsibly human.'
I believe that everyone has a call in life. It's not always easy to hear it in the midst of all the chaotic busyness of our lives. It's not easy to set aside some of that stuff long enough to pay attention to the still small voice within that insists you should be doing something innately satisfying. The lad Joseph in our story today knew what he needed to do; his response was always 'Why not?' He knew that you can't wait for life to happen, it's happening right now as you eat, and breathe. You are living your life today and each day; you are not waiting for life to happen, right? How does what you are doing today reflect your life purpose? Do you even know what you really want to do with your life?
Perhaps we are stuck. Jesus said, 'Many are called, but few are chosen.' Poet Lee Pieper reiterates his thought: 'Many are called but most are frozen /in corporate or collective cold,/these are the stalled/ who choose not to be chosen/ except to be bought and sold.'
It's easy to remain stuck in our ordinary lives, getting the bread on the table and paying the rent. But what do you think about in the middle of the night? Quick, what would you do with your life if there were no obstacles in your way? What kind of purpose would you like to have in your life, for your life? I cannot say enough about how much more full and whole my life is now that I am heeding that call. It's taken me half way or all the way across the continent several times. But it's worth it, for me.
The idea of call applies equally to us as a congregation or us as a country. Does Canada know what it is called to do and to be in the world? What still, small voice do we as a church follow? Is it a voice of conscience and intention, or do we drift along, bumping the edges of the river in our raft? Wouldn't we really be happier if we knew where the river was heading, and we made the decision where to be in the current?
Poet Mary Oliver asks her provocative question:'Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?'
What DO you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
That is the fundamental question. Richard Gilbert responds:Listen! Hear! Heed!
In those rare moments when we hear the voice -
The source of which we do not know,
But the reality of which is beyond doubt,
May we heed its tender ministrations
And be convinced by its strength.
Listen! Hear! Heed! Listen! Hear! Heed!
Have you heard your call, or are you on 'call waiting'?
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