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)