Mark Twain once said: “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you figure out why.”
That first important day comes about without a whole lot of our own initiative. It’s that second day that’s the real booger.
The scriptures for today are stories of call. Isaiah experiences the call of God through a majestic vision while worshiping in the temple. The first disciples experience the call of Jesus through an invitation to follow, while fishing in their boats on Lake Galilee.
For the vast majority of us that Why question is a very live and open ended one. When we hear about these dramatic and seemingly definitive kinds of stories of call we might have a tendency to either envy them, or write them off as something that doesn’t happen anymore. Life is too ambiguous, and each day such a new set of circumstances that one can’t have such persistent clarity in what one is to do.
This is part of our burden as human beings. Animals live by instincts and operate within their ecological niche, each generation pretty much doing what the generations before it did. Life isn’t exactly easy for a monarch butterfly, or gazelle, or a bluejay, or a male praying mantis that gets eaten by its partner after mating, but they don’t seem to struggle much with the Why question.
Humanity, on the other hand, has emerged from the animal kingdom with much more freedom in relation to instincts. We quite literally don’t know what we’re supposed to do. We’ve got some ideas, and we have communities and traditions and cultures that orient us, but the question persists. We have within us a holy unrest, a divine discontent, a drive for more – more meaning, more connection, a more full life, more fully embodying the energy of the Spirit that is the driving force behind the whole shebang.
This is a burden, and also a gift. Our lives are uniquely available to God. And in Christian faith, we believe God wills that we live with radical availability to the impulse, the call of the Spirit.
It can start rather simply. All the disciples did initially was loan Jesus their boat as a temporary platform for delivering a sermon in that synagogue without walls by the lake. But, you let this guy in your boat, and things are sure to never be the same. After preaching, Jesus has them put out into deep water and they bring in a massive catch of fish, this after a whole night of catching nothing. With the fish still flipping around in the nets, Jesus tells them to leave it all behind and follow him. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says to Simon Peter. “From now on you will be catching people.” And that’s how it starts. They left their boats and followed.
Who knows how many times Isaiah had been in the temple in his life. But one time he sees Yahweh, like a king, seated on a high throne, surrounded by six winged seraphim who call out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy, is Yahweh of Hosts, the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” And the whole structure shakes and fills with smoke.
In case we envy Isaiah in this, the text is pretty clear that this is not a particularly pleasant experience. Isaiah’s response is, “Oh No. I’m screwed. Where’s the exit?” Or, to use more biblical language, “Woe is me. I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of hosts.” This close brush with divine glory leads to an instant recognition on the part of Isaiah that he is completely unworthy. It’s a similar response that Peter has after Jesus instructs them to let down their nets in the previously fish-less water. After the record breaking haul, Peter falls down at Jesus’ knees and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
It’s a response echoed throughout scripture. In the Bible, being called seems like something more to avoid and wiggle yourself out of, than something to look forward to.
Moses said I can’t speak. Jeremiah said I’m too young. Sara said I’m too old. But the call comes, despite the status of the one being called. Jacob was a liar, Ruth was a foreigner, David was an adulterer and a murder, Mary had no previous experience, Paul was a raging fundamentalist. But they each played a key role in the unfolding story of the people of God. All highly unqualified for the task at hand, but willing. Despite themselves.
But there is a remedy for Isaiah. One of those six winged Seraphs pulls a live coal from the altar, and flies over to him, and touches it to his lips. The touch of this fire is the remedy. Sins are forgiven, guilt is dismissed.
Then Isaiah overhears that divine conversation: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah offers that beautiful and simple statement of availability. “Here I am: send me.”
About a month ago, NPR did a feature on Peace Pilgrim, the woman who walked back and forth across the country for 28 years in the name of peace. She started out walking during the Korean War at a time when the threat of nuclear war loomed large. She said: “I own only what I wear and carry. I just walk until given shelter, fast until given food. I don’t even ask; it’s given without asking. I tell you, people are good. There’s a spark of good in everybody.” She carried only a pen, a toothbrush, a map, and a comb. I’m personally not sure why the comb would be all that necessary (I’m hair-challenged).
John B. sent me the link to the article and it caught my attention because it contains her story of call. She says that she did not grow up in a religious or political home, but that they were taught to think for themselves. In her young adult years she was good at making money and enjoyed the latest styles of clothing, but felt discontent. One evening she went for a walk in the woods, and this is how she tells the story of what happened that night:
“And after I had walked almost all night, I came out into a clearing where the moonlight was shining down. And something just motivated me to speak and I found myself saying, ‘If you can use me for anything, please use me. Here I am, take all of me, use me as you will, I withhold nothing.” That night, I experienced the complete willingness, without any reservations whatsoever, to give my life to something beyond myself.”
Not coming from a religious home, I’m guessing she had never read Isaiah, but the similarities are striking. The temple is replaced with the clearing in the woods. The smoke is replaced with the moonlight. The vision of Yahweh on the throne is replaced with the more strong sense of “something beyond myself.” And the response to this encounter with the transcendent is exactly the same – “Here I am. Use me. Send me.”
The seraphim had said in praise, “The whole earth is full of your glory,” and every forest clearing, every stretch of road, every home, every fishing lake, is a place of potential encounter.
I think there is something stirring in the collective unconscious at CMF, because all of a sudden the writer and poet Rainer Maria Rilke is getting cited left and right. I read a poem by him during Advent. A few weeks ago Kory and Nicole B. gave me his collection of Letters to a Young Poet. Last Sunday Keith L gave his welcome to the Arts worship service by reading a piece by him, and then later in the same service Simon Jorgenson read the very quote from one of the letters to the young poet that I had planned on reading today. So, this is a repeat from last week, they say that repetition aids learning, and it’s the kind of quote I wouldn’t mind being reminded of frequently.
Just as a brief refresher, Rilke was a celebrated Austrian poet and at the beginning of the 20th century received an inquiry from an aspiring younger poet who wanted writing advice. They developed a correspondence, and this excerpt comes from the first letter that Rilke wrote to him. Listen for what it has to say about calling. Rilke writes:
“You ask if your verses are good. You ask me. You have previously asked others. You send them to journals. You compare them with other poems, and you are troubled when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (as you have permitted me to advise you) I beg you to give all that up. You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this solemn question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life must, right to its most unimportant and insignificant hour, become a token and a witness of this impulse.”
(Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Paris, February 17, 1903)
That attunement to what one must do is a common thread that runs through the different experiences of call. Isaiah, Peter, Peace Pilgrim, Mary, Rilke. There is a difference between living out of what we must do, and living out of what we should do, which is more the default way of going about life. Should is based on our perception of other’s perceptions. And so it is twice distorted. I should do this. I think that others think this would be good. Or, if I did this, I think others would think of me as good. I should. Should is a powerful force and can carry us a pretty far way. But it’s different than must. Knowing what you must do arises out of a place of availability and attentiveness to God. It comes from a place not of your own making or that of any other person. It is the Divine eternal life pressing in on your own, temporal life, calling for expression through you.
We may wish to balance Rilke’s challenge to go inward, with our baptismal vow to “give and receive counsel in the congregation.” Which is to say, clarity and guidance arise not only from the interior world of the soul, but also in community, out of the relationships we have committed ourselves to. What we value so much in the church, and what the Anabaptist stream of Christianity has emphasized, is that personal call always happens within community. We are not just a collection of individuals. There are unique calls and gifts and contributions that each of us make, but because life and salvation has to do with relationships, the call must be experienced and lived out collectively. In community. Give and receiving counsel. And even if you have no clue about any aspect of your personal call, you share in the call of the church, and the church gives you a call because you are a member of it. We are called to be reconciled to one another, to economic sharing, to sharing each others’ joys and sorrows. This is the call the church gives us. We are called to embrace one another in all our glory and all our shortcomings.
But the main point from Rilke is still there. “This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of the night: must I? And if you must “then build your life according to this necessity; your life must, right to its most unimportant and insignificant hour, become a token and a witness of this impulse.”
There is in the reality of call, and the must, something that we can utterly relax into. It is not up to us to originate the call. It’s not even up to us to find the call. It’s simply up to us to make ourselves available to being found by the call. To offer that most basic of all prayers: Here I am. A prayer that makes room for Spirit. If there’s any room at all, Christ sneaks up, and gets in the back of the boat, and whispers to put out into deeper water.