Thursday, January 29, 2015

In 1991 I Wrote This About My Call

I was looking for some old Lenten monologues I wrote based on Mark's gospel, and I came upon the "Endorsement Essay" that I wrote for the seminary and for my denomination.  Here's what I wrote:

SINCE childhood, I have been nurtured by many stories from the Bible.  There have been picture Bibles at bedtime before prayers, stories told by Sunday School teachers, lectionary readings preached from the pulpit.  A few of these stories have stayed with me and become mine, to comfort as well as afflict me.  He is a story about some of the stories that have become companions with me on my journey.

Story #1
It was a dark and stormy night, and the little boat was rocked by waves.  The disciples had all they could do to keep afloat, for the wind was against them.  When they saw Jesus walking across the lake to them, it was somehow not so reassuring, but just another eerie thing in the middle of the night, the kind they would have nightmares about sometimes after witnessing Jesus cast out some particularly terrifying demons.  "Don't be afraid!" he called, and it was about as easy to stop being afraid as it would have been to stop breathing.  Impulsive Peter, however,  put all sense behind him.  The man knew no fear.  He leaped from the boat and found himself, to his surprise, walking on water.  It didn't last, however; it couldn't last.  Peter feared he fell; he failed.

It was August 30, 1981.  My palms were sweaty, my mouth was dry, I felt somewhat numb.  I was in church, being commissioned as a missionary to Japan, and I listened intently as the minister told this story.  I identified with Peter.  I was leaving for Japan the next day, and I was not packed yet.  I felt ignorant, foolish, unprepared.

"But I never feel prepared!"
It was at a winter retreat
that a student said it,
I was pleased when a counselor replied,
"But we walk on water all the time."

It is well to be prepared,
but we dare not forget that we are never fully prepared
for the tasks that are most worth doing.
The tasks that are worthy of us, as persons,
are often beyond us.

--Gerhard Frost, "Bless My Growing"

As I prepared for ministry of service in Japan, I feared that I had gotten in "over my head" as Peter did, and was about to drown.  But I also began to suspect that "over my head" was just where God wanted me.  I began to suspect that a life in response to God's grace was a life of risk, a life of continual dependence on the Voice that calls out over the waves, and the strong Arm that reaches us when we are drowning.  We are continually drowning and being raised to new life, and since that first drowning, we need not fear the others.

It was May 19, 1957.  I was only one month old, and this time, I did not jump in.  I was pushed!  When my parents brought me to Augustana church that day in obedience to God's Word, I'm sure they did not suspect what adventures would follow.  But as the minister poured water three times over my head in the strong name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I was assured a lifetime of getting in "over my head."  It is a lifetime of grace for all of our a ventures, of daring to risk because of the God who dares to go with us.

Story #2
Job was a Good Man, God had said so Himself, so it came as somewhat of a shock when he found his fortunes turning from good to bad and from bad to worse.  He lost everything; first his fortune, then his family, even his wife, last his health.  No one understood it, least of all Job, although some of his friends who thought they had it all worked out came over to try to enlighten him.  "Comforters," they were called, and some of their responses sounded reasonable, though none of them were very comforting, and Job did not find them compelling.  In the end, Job demanded an explanation from God himself, and though he didn't get one, he did get God, the creator of the Universe, right there, at this bedside.

I first read the story of Job, all 42 chapters of the Revised Standard Version, the first day of my senior year of high school.  It was an assignment.  I didn't understand it much then.  But by the end of my senior year, I had begun to take a liking to this gutsy questioner.  By the end of this year, I too was beginning to question God.  Confronted by issues of human suffering, the Holocaust, the Atomic bomb, I found it difficult to believe in an all-powerful but all-loving God.  Trips to the library to learn more about Jesus did not bring answers but still more questions.  In the church, which I continued to attend despite my doubts, I found no answers either.  But I found something.  I found God who promised to be with us "where two or three are gathered."  I found that the Christian response to suffering was not an answer, but a presence.  As Job discovered, answers did not sustain me.  But God has sustained me and continues to sustain.  Within the bread and the wine, within the gathered community which sings, prayers, confesses together, God is present.  Sometimes the community believes for me when I cannot believe.  Sometimes another is weak when I am strong.  I know we don't always get answers, but I know that the Creator of the Universe has come right here, among us.

Story #3
Jonah went to Nineveh to preach repentance, but it certainly wasn't his idea.  In fact, the indentations in the sand were pretty long and deep where God dragged him kicking and screaming.  In case you had forgotten, the first thing Jonah did when God called him was get on a boat going in the opposite direction.  After that, he ended up spending three days in the belly of a great fish, reconsidering his original plan.  That's what you get for trying to run away from God.

I like Jonah.  I think I am a lot like him.  He was stubborn and resistant, pretty convinced that he could not preach the Word, especially to Nineveh.  Jonah knew his weaknesses and used them as excuses to run away from God's call.  I find I have been the same way.  "I can't serve you, God," I have argued.  "I am not a leader.  I am not assertive enough."  (Indeed, I will have to learn to be more assertive as I grow in ministry.)  But my argument, unfortunately, did not impress God.  "You're crazy, God", I countered, "I am too much of a people-pleaser to preach your Word prophetically."  (And it's true, I do need to learn to be less concerned about how other people see me.)  But God was as stubborn as I was, and this argument did not work either.  "O God," I persisted piously.  I am not disciplined enough in my own life of prayer and Bible study to lead a congregation's spiritual life."  and God granted that it was a true confession, but did not give up calling me.  I began to hear another voice beneath all of my excuses, and this one was a still small voice, reminding me that along with all my weaknesses, I also had gifts to bring to ministry.

One of these gifts ironically, grows out of my own stubborn delay in recognizing Gods call.  Because of that, I have had many experiences as a lay person, struggling to integrate faith and life.  I have often sat in the pew on Sunday morning and thought, "That's nice for you, Pastor, but how do I live out my Christian faith in my life and at my job?  What do I do on Monday?"  I want to hang onto that experience as I plan worship and preaching.  I have also sat on church councils and know the good, the bad and the ugly about church politics.  I believe that lay people can teach me as well as learn from me.

Another of these gifts is a love for stories and for writing.  Clarity of expression is important to me.  I know that words and stories have power.  I also know that people are stories to be read and enjoyed.  I want to learn to read people and learn from them and be sensitive to their struggles.  I know that the Word is not just words on a page, but the word of speech, of touch, of sight and of sound.

Another gift I bring is my nurture in the Lutheran tradition, with respect for the power of baptism and the Triune God who commands it and acts through it.  Yet I have grown through a variety of religious experiences, Lutheran and not:  summer campfires, charismatic worship, reading in mysticism, cross-cultural experiences, and insights through art, music and literature.  I have learned that God speaks to us in a variety of languages to different people.  All these resources I might bring to worship, preaching, teaching, and counseling, now that I have gotten out of the belly of that great fish.

Story #4
In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the Beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In the Beginning was the Word.  And the Almighty Word leapt down from heaven, took on human flesh, eating and drinking and laughing and weeping with us.  In the End the Word was crucified by us and for us, but that was only the Beginning.  In the Middle the Word healed and forgave, spoke in riddles and walked on seas, multiplied loaves of bread and divided the house of Satan, and wear generally misunderstood and underestimated.  In the Middle, almost nobody understood until the End.  But that was only the Beginning.  In the Middle was the Word, and the Word is in the Middle.  In the Middle, we continue to misunderstand, get it wrong, trip over our shoelaces and miss the point.  And in the Middle we continue to hear the Word, "Given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins, who is, in the middle of our middle, still eating and drinking and laughing and weeping with us, although we often don't understand until the End.

And that is only the beginning.

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