Monday, June 25, 2012

This certainly does not come under the category of the 77th General Convention, but it does have to do with vocation -- especially the ordained variety.  I am referring to a different approach to a sense of "call."

I work with search committees on a regular basis, and a major challenge is to help them avoid the trap of thinking of the search for a new priest as a secular process of "hiring" a certain "type" of priest.  I generally deal with that temptation preemptively by asking them to reflect on a specific biblical passage at the initial search-vestry retreat.

The passage is from First Samuel15 and it was our first lesson on Sunday a couple of weeks ago.  In that passage, Samuel has been urged by God to go to the village of Bethlehem and to the family of Jesse to anoint a new king for Israel. Even though Saul is still alive and serving as king, an heir is going to be selected.

Seven sons of Jesse stand before Samuel.  He looks first at the eldest, Eliab, and thinks "Surely the Lord's anointed is before me."  But God tells Samuel "no" -- do not look at his stature or outward appearance.  God looks at the heart and sees the essence of the person's character.  So Samuel looks next at Abinadab, then Shammah, and the four remaining sons.  None of these is chosen by God through Samuel's sense of discernment.

Samuel turns to Jesse and says, "Are these all your sons?"  Jesse responds, "There remains one -- the youngest. He is tending the flocks in the fields."  Jesse sends for the youngest, a mere boy.  David -- with his ruddy complexion and beautiful eyes notwithstanding -- is chosen by God and anointed by Samuel because God looked into David's heart and saw what he was seeking.

All of this was within the context of Saul having been chosen the first king because he was taller than all the other Israelites.  David -- a young boy -- was chosen as his successor.

The point, from my perspective, is that if we are willing to be truly discerning in hearing God's call, we may well be surprised.  We may be looking for someone who is tall, handsome, graceful and extroverted, when what God is seeking to show us is someone who is short, frail, thoughtful, and introverted.  Or any other form of a surprise.

That is a point I seek to convey:  That God may be urging us in one direction when we, for our own reasons, may be champing at the bit to go in another direction.  Being able to open ourselves to a true sense and experience of discernment may yield great promise.

I think that is how congregations need to see this process, and God's seeking to move in our midst.  Now to the clergy.

I am amazed at how often a sense of "call" is confused with something entirely different.  A colleague once told me of his service as a college chaplain in the New Orleans area many, many years ago.  His cure as a college chaplain was not real prominent and I am certain his compensation was modest, at best. 

This colleague -- then a young, rookie priest -- was contacted by a congregation in another diocese, expressing an interest in calling him as rector.  There would have been a great increase in responsibilities, profile and, of course, compensation.  He felt very attracted to the offer, so he went to see his Bishop, Girault Jones, Bishop of Louisiana.

In his meeting with Bishop Jones, the young priest described the offer from another diocese and congregation.  Bishop Jones listened patiently, then said, "Well, what do you think?"  The young priest responded eagerly, "I think I am being called there." Bishop Jones, thought for a moment, then said, "I don't know if it is a call or a temptation."

It is interesting how frequently many senses of "call" are in complete concert with our own hearts' desires.  It is amazing how frequently what God wants us to do is exactly what we would like to do!  What an amazing coincidence!

Examples are numerous:  "I am called to stay in the same area as my seminary," "I feel called to be close to the beach," "I feel called to Florida,""I feel a call to a program sized church," "I feel called to a metropolitan area," or, of course, "I feel called to a much higher paying church."  It's interesting how infrequently people sense a "call" to small town, rural ministry.

A colleague recently left a very prominent and important position in a significant diocese.  She did not do so in order to be "upwardly mobile."  Instead, she accepted a call to a small, struggling congregation, split by larger church controversies, in hopes of bringing healing to this congregation seeking gifted leadership.  I admire her for her response to the call, countercultural though it may be.  She models, for me, an openness to God's call.  There are so many levels on which I admire her.  This is just one of them.
If our vocation is truly a calling, we need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, drawing us in directions we might not ever have anticipated.  The vocation of priesthood is not about self-actualization as much as it is about self-offering. 

I cannot help but think of Jonathan Daniels, the Episcopal seminarian who came south to work for racial justice.  I also think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who left the safety of the United States and New York City and returned to his native Germany to lead the "confessing church" in Hitler's Germany.  I think of Matt Devenney, the 33-year-old father and husband, who sensed a call to be executive director of Stewpot Ministries in Jackson, Mississippi.

They were all pursuing their sense of call -- and each paid a significant price. Jonathan Daniels was shot down in the streets of Hayneville, Alabama, protecting a young girl from the shotgun's blast, on August 20, 1965.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred at Flossenburg Prison on April 9, 1945 -- less than two weeks before the Allies liberated that infamous concentration camp.  Matt Devenney was shot-down on a Jackson street by a deranged homeless person he was trying to help on June 19, 1991.  While their lives were ultimately not "happy" (in a traditional, superficial sense), there was no doubt a sense meaning in their response to God's call.

Few of us are called to lives of complete sacrifice.  Yet those of us who are blessed to be in ordained ministry do have a mandate to seek "the mind of Christ" as we try to live out the vows we have taken for ourselves.  That sense of call may lead us to interesting and challenging pathways -- but so rich with meaning.

My perspective on the sense of call is greatly influenced by a specific hymn.  And I am grateful to the Greenville, Mississippi poet, William Alexander Percy (1885-1942), who wrote Hymn 661 in The Hymnal 1982:

"They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown;
Such happy, simple fisherfolk,
Before the Lord came down.

"Contented, peaceful fishermen,
Before they ever knew
The peace of God that filled their hearts
Brimful, and broke them too.

"Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head-down was crucified.

"The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing --
The marvelous peace of God."

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