Saying is believing

August 16, 2010

One of the things I most appreciate about the call stories in the Bible is that there is no single template. When Peter, Andrew, James and John are summoned by Jesus to leave their nets to follow him, “immediately” they do just that (Luke 4:18-22). When God calls Jonah to go to Ninevah, he also gets going immediately—but in the exact opposite direction (Jonah 1:1-3).

In this week's Old Testament passage, Jeremiah at first protests God's call, in part for the same reason Moses does (Ex. 4:10)—because he is not a good speaker. Then there is the rich young ruler who, when called by Jesus to sell his possessions and follow him, responds only with sadness (Luke 18:22-23). We hear nothing more about him, presumably because he simply walked away.

The stunning variety of these call stories testifies both to the ingenuity of God, who has more than one means of working in our lives, and to human freedom, which allows for more than one possible response.

It is important to remember that these accounts are all written in retrospect. Jeremiah, writing as a grown man, traces his call to an experience as a 14-year-old. Whether the full meaning and import of that experience was known fully when he was only 14 may be another matter.

This should not be surprising. In my tradition today, candidates for ordination are asked to tell the story of their own call to ministry, often over and over again, both on paper and verbally before different church bodies. In recent years I have had occasion to hear candidates give the story of their calls at different junctures in ordination process. Often the story changes with each telling, usually becoming sharper and more focused, accompanied by an extra measure of certainty.

There are different ways to interpret this evolution. The cynical interpretation would be that, as candidates proceed through the ordination process, they learn more about what various ecclesiastical bodies want to hear and simply deliver it to them. But most often, I don't think that this is the case. Another possible interpretation might be that candidates just get better at telling their stories with the continual retelling. I am sure this is a partial explanation in many instances.

But there is a third possibility—that a candidate for ordination, by retelling his or her story of call, actually sees with greater clarity what God was up to at certain junctures. Sometimes you don’t see something until you say it. And sometimes saying is believing.

Additional lectionary columns by Copenhaver appear in the August 10 issue of the Century—click here to subscribe.


Julie Holm said... As one

Julie Holm said...

As one of those students in care, I agree with your conclusion. Every time I revisit my experience, I see new things in it, new threads in my life, new ways God was active in my life that led to the realization that just maybe I was being called to ministry.

I would also say that outside verification, not by committees on Ministry, but by fellow students, by other members of my church, and the like that they can see God working in my life (even, sometimes, when I can't) help me see my experience in a new perspective.

E said... "Sometimes you

E said...

"Sometimes you don’t see something until you say it. And sometimes saying is believing..."
Can't tell you how many times I can make my own calling sure by simply letting the words come out in a sermon. It was not by flesh and blood that something divine was revealed, but a moment when, like Moses and Jeremiah with all of the excuses and impediments, the Lord blurted out something more powerful and eloquent than I could conceive. I may have practiced the words until rote took over, but the Lord took my youthful voice and inept wanderings and bathed them with His presence. You do get better at your gifts and life, the more obedient you become. Living out the practice of faith is an exhilarating thing. Thanks for the great quote.
--Rev. Edward G. Powell, Jr., Midlothian, VA

Mark Rich said... One of

Mark Rich said...

One of the striking things to me about Jesus' call to the wealthy man is that it fails. We know that there is a (small) number of failures in Jesus' ministry, and this is clearly one of them. It's telling that it's the last one, the preparatory one, before he goes to Jerusalem for what he knows will be his greatest failure/triumph. It's also telling that this one has to do with a wealthy person. It was easier for Jesus to raise people from death than it was to transform this wealthy man into a sharer of life.

Roger Talbott said... I

Roger Talbott said...

I once chaired a United Methodist District Committee on Ordained Ministry, which is the place people begin telling their call stories. One of the questions the committee always wrestled with was, "how can we tell if a call is authentic" - especially because the stories were all so different. But, we recognized that some people did come before us who suffered from mental illness or were seeking status. How could we tell authentic calls from delusions of grandeur? (the biggest delusion: that there is any grandeur left in pastoral ministry).
We concluded that authentic calls always were accompanied by struggle. People questioned whether God had made a mistake - gotten a wrong number perhaps? People in midlife confessed that they had resisted the call since their teens. Others felt compelled to come and tell about their call and ask for candidacy when they could see no practical way that they could quit their jobs and disrupt their family life to complete requirements for ordination.
In contrast, a few came before us with absolute confidence that God had called them and come to think of it, without a real story, because in the absence of conflict, there really isn't a story.

Louise Robson said...

Louise Robson said...

Good discussion! I, too, resisted the call for many years ("What, ME? Are you crazy? And I'm a girl!") but God doesn't give up easy. So I would say maybe Jesus' invitation to the rich young man didn't fail, it just took time, and we don't get to hear the rest of the story. Except from each other. For I had a huge insight/flash/revelation one night when I saw myself as the rich young ruler--to answer the call, having put it off so long, would mean giving up farm and home and family stuff...not easy. Finally did it. Released, revived, freed, turned on and sent out--not without cost, not without struggle and not 'immediately', but what an adventure it's been, thanks be to God.