Sunday, January 25, 2015

What are you called to?

Today’s reading is from the beginning of the book of Mark.

 It is the story of some fishermen who left their boats to follow a call. It must be an important story as it one of the few that appears in all four gospels.

It always intrigues me why the writers of the synoptic gospels have this story set at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus and the gospel of John has it as a post-resurrection story. The gospels of Mark and Matthew have a very brief account while the gospels of John and Luke go into more detail.

I remember reading, a long time ago, a paper by James Dunn who talked about story being used to convey truth. He cited examples of primitive tribes where messages were conveyed through story. The details changed, but the core truth remained the same. It is a way of conveying truth that is hard for us in the Western world to get our heads around. If someone told me a story most of which was just elaboration (or untruth) I would struggle to find them credible, rather than understanding it as a means of communication. In the Western world children are taught that untruth and exaggeration in a factual story are always wrong.  

However, becoming aware of that style of communication helped me a lot in understanding the stories and parables in the gospels which were, initially, orally communicated. The details aren’t too important. It doesn’t matter if the stories in the various gospels don’t match up sentence by sentence. The core message is what is important. The stories, the details, are vehicles to convey a truth.

So today, our reading is one of four similar stories. The details and timing vary somewhat, but that doesn’t matter. What is essential is the truth they convey. I think the important thing is they all talk about a call to do something. For the people in the gospels it was a call to a religious life. It was a call to leave their trade and follow a different path.

It led me to ponder about the idea of a call on one’s life. I wondered how the word “call” was defined in the sense I was using it. Various dictionaries used words like demand, request, command, order, invitation, summons. Strangely none used the word vocation which I would have expected. Unlike many words, there wasn’t one definition that was used by all the sources. The idea of call felt like it was more fluid, intangible, a deep inner experience that no one definition could pin down.

So it is with this nebulous idea of call that I offer a few thoughts.

Firstly, I think we all have a call on our lives. It doesn’t have to be a religious call. Yet, the idea of following one’s call is a deeply spiritual experience. It is something deep inside that we are drawn to do. Calls can encompass every area of life. For society to function well, people need to have different calls. It would not do if everyone was called to be a nurse, or everyone was called to be a teacher, or everyone was called to be a plumber.

Secondly, I think, people may have multiple calls on their lives. In our community we see that illustrated. There are people who are called to be teachers (or nurses, or plumbers) and called to be priests or called to prison ministry or called to feed the poor.

Thirdly, I think that calls are received in different ways. In our story in the gospels the fishermen are called and responded in an instant. That happened with Andy and I over foster care. In 1982 we read a newspaper article about the need for foster parents in the area we were then living. We responded instantly and, now, in 2015 we still have a house full of children. Yet, other calls are simply a growing awareness that this is something I should think about doing. They take time to develop and come to maturity. They should not be rushed.

Fourthly, I think calls can be for life or they can be time limited. I remember in my college days feeling a strong call to go and feed the homeless who could be found under Waterloo Bridge at night. I joined a team of others and we took soup and bread throughout the long winter nights. It was a call that was right for that brief time in my life but then I moved on to different things.

Fifthly, following a call isn’t always going to be easy. In the gospel reading today the fishermen who answered the call ended up murdered or exiled. While that is probably not going to happen to any of us it is important to remember that just because one has a deep, inner conviction that this is the right thing to do doesn’t make it easy. There will be times when whatever one is doing may feel boring, mundane, stressful, overwhelming, upsetting, etc. It is not the easy option but definitely worthwhile.

Finally, I will let Thomas Merton have the last word.
“Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.” (No Man is An Island)

Sunday, January 11, 2015


As I ponder the lectionary readings today I see a common theme between them (which isn’t always the case).

They are all talking about beginnings.

Today in the lectionary, the week is denoted as Ordinary 1. The Christmas season is officially over. Yet Andy and I commented yesterday about how many people have Christmas trees and lights still up. Perhaps people are a little reluctant to enter “ordinary” time wanting to prolong the Christmas season. It can feel a little flat, a little empty when the excitement and joy of Christmas and Epiphany are over. We took down our tree and decorations midweek on the traditional twelfth night. The house always looks a little bare for the first couple of days until we re-adjust to the new norm.

So maybe the readings are timely. It is not a time to think about what has ended but a time to think about what is beginning.

The Old Testament reading is the story of creation in Genesis 1. It is a familiar story, a myth to try and explain how humanity came into existence: the beginning of humanity. As I read the text, three things stood out to me.

The first was that the story started with light. At the very beginning there was light. Light is so amazing. We still have a few white lights outside around our deck. It is too cold and they are too frozen to do anything about them at the moment. We love the light they give, a few little bulbs and it transforms the darkness. There is something very spiritual about light. Can we in our homes, places of work and daily lives be tiny lights that transform the darkness?

The second thing that I noticed was how in this story of creation there was no hierarchy. Both male and female were created in the image of God together. Today, I am not going to say any more about this. However, if you have not read it I would recommend reading Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Trible is an expert in feminist theology. This book includes a wonderful commentary on creation.

The third thing that stood out to me was that in creation people were only given plants and trees to eat. (Killing animals only came in with the fall). Interestingly I noted that animals too were only given plants to eat. Again, I am not going to expound this thought, today. Sufficient to say that the Biblical mandate in Genesis is to protect and care for the animals.

The New Testament readings, in Mark and Acts respectively, talk about the baptism of Jesus and the spread of Christianity. They were both new beginnings in the story of the Christian church. It was the official start of the ministry of Jesus and the message of inclusion for all.  Something different, something new was happening. They were exciting times.

So this week let’s not think about the fact something has ended but that something new has begun. We are eleven days into 2015, the first week of “ordinary” time.

For most of us ordinary time is quite mundane. Maybe even a little drab. There is not the special festivals or decorations.  Many of us do the same thing every day. Yet, it is a new beginning. Each day brings new challenges.

We get quite a lot of snow in Ithaca. One of the things I like to do is be first out to step on the snow. It is fun to see my footprints standing out clearly. Of course, they soon get merged with the footprints of others and together make a path through the snow.

Ordinary time is really important. Without ordinary time the special would no longer be special. Yet, perhaps more importantly, ordinary time is where we live most of our time. It is where our day-to -day spirituality is lived out. It is where we can live out Christ incarnate in the world. Today, Ordinary 1, is a new beginning. Let us rush into it with excitement and expectation. Here is our new beginning, our new opportunity to be as Christ to those we meet and to see Christ in all those we meet.