Saturday, February 16, 2013

Pleased to Reveal His Son to Me

Galatians 1:1-24
Lent 1
February 17, 2013
William G. Carter

"But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased  to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles..."

I have just introduced you to somebody unusual. Paul is the second most visible person in the New Testament after Jesus. He has written more documents in our Bible than anyone else. All of them are letters, sent to churches, as a way of closing the distance between a congregation he knew and the place where he was. We don’t know where Paul was when he wrote this letter. He was often in prison, often in trouble with the Roman Empire, or often in trouble with his fellow Jews. Or so we are led to believe.

            But Paul started congregations of Jesus followers. That was his work. He traveled to the region of Galatia, probably four cities in what now is central Turkey. And he spoke to people who had no background in the Jewish faith. It must been a stretch. Paul was a Jew, a very educated Jew. He knew the Jewish Bible. When he trained as a Pharisee, he memorized every commandment. He knew every ancient story. He goes to Turkey, where most of the people didn’t know any of it, and he told them about Jesus, whom he calls the Lord, the Christ.

            He begins the letter by signing it, “Paul, an apostle, through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” And he reminds them of what Jesus has done for all of us: “He gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever.” Say hello to the apostle Paul.

            Something has gone wrong in his absence. The churches that he planted with his own hands have been infected by weeds. All his hard work has been compromised by different thinking. The people who were called together by God to worship, to learn, to serve are slipping away. (I wonder if they were Presbyterians. Or maybe they were Catholics. Certainly they were Galatians.) The good news that Paul had spoken, the news of Christ’s liberating death for sin, the news that Christ is the Risen Lord stronger than evil and destruction – that news was not as compelling as it once was. And it is making him angry. Very angry.

            “I am astonished you are deserting God and turning to another gospel, except there is no other gospel!” He says, “If anybody is preaching an alternative gospel, a fake gospel, then they ought to burn with the devil.” That is what he says, because he is angry. When people are angry, they say all kinds of things. Usually they amplify their point as a way of getting the point across.

            This is the letter to the Galatians. It is Paul’s angriest letter. He is going to blow his top a few times as he pens these chapters. “What has happened?” he wants to know. “Who bewitched you?” It seems that after he started the churches and moved on, some new preachers came in, and the first thing they did was to criticize everybody who came before them. It still happens. Doesn’t matter who was there, or what they did before, the person insists on “new and improved.” After Paul, the preacher who followed insisted on a “new and improved Gospel” – not that there is another Gospel, he says.

            “What happened to the love? How did we lose the affection?” Paul says in chapter four, “When I came to you, you would have plucked out your eyes for me!” But not now. Somebody insinuated he was only interested in pleasing the people. “He’s a people-pleaser,” they said when he wasn’t around. “You know all that grace that Paul preaches? It’s just a lot of mush. It’s soft. It has no backbone. He doesn’t lay down the rules and tell you what to do.” It’s amazing the criticism that comes when people are too cowardly to talk to your face, when they kick you in absentia. When they murmur, “Who does Paul think he is?”

            Well, he tells us who he is in the first three words: “Paul, an apostle.” Once his name was Saul, named after the first of Israel’s kings. He strutted around as if he had royal authority, as if he knew he was right and others were wrong. But then, you may remember the story, he met the Risen Christ. In the book of Acts, the story is told by another writer named Luke. Remember it? Paul was a Jew, hunting down those Christ-followers, trying to suffocate the church – until one day, about noon, on the road to Damascus, Jesus Christ appeared to him. The light was so bright that it took away his sight for a while. The Voice was so thunderous that it drove him to his knees. The Son of David said to the Son of Saul, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And Saul said, “Who are you, Lord?” He didn’t know, even though he knew.

            Because he started calling himself “Paul,” which means “Tiny” Christ was great, he was small.

            And he calls himself an apostle. Don’t confuse the word “apostle” with “disciple.” I know they are treated as interchangeable words, but there is a distinction. A disciple is a follower, a student, a life-long learner. “Apostle” comes from “apostolos,” a word in the realm of horticulture. When a plant sends out a “runner,” as in a spider plant, the part that goes out is the “apostolos.” An apostle is one who is sent. “Tiny Paul” encounters Christ. Then he has a growing sense that he is sent, with all his Jewish knowledge, to people who are not Jewish at all. That is his life’s mission. That is the purpose that the Risen Christ has laid upon his shoulders. “I have no choice,” he says elsewhere, “for it is ‘necessity’ that is laid upon me. I have to go to the Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 9:16)

            So this is the apostle Paul. Say hello to Paul. He is an unusual person. And perhaps the most unusual thing about him is that he is a convert. A convert. Once he was like this, but now he is like this. “Maybe you heard about my former life,” he says. “I was a Jew. I was a Super Jew. I was more zealous than all my peers. I cared about my faith. I advanced through all the chairs. I memorized all the holy words. I cared about the traditions of Abraham and Moses. I breathed Jewish air, and I exhaled Torah. I was so committed to God that I wanted to get rid of those Christians who were messing with Jewish tradition. I persecuted the church in the name of God. That was then, this is now . . .”

            I don’t know if you have ever spent much time around a convert. It’s like they divided their life into two parts – before and after. Once they were wild, crazy, hanging off the tailpipe of every motorcycle that roared through town – now they are different. Once they drank and smoked and messed around, there was marijuana in the guitar case, a different lover in every town, but now they are a new creation.

            I tell you the truth. I don’t always do well with those kind of people. They bother me.

            We had a few converts in our Bible study group in our college. Mostly we were church kids, youth group alumni. We met to learn about the Bible, pray about midterms, maybe to find a safe date. Then a couple of converts joined the group – wild-eyed, fervent, disruptive. One stopped by my dorm room to visit. He saw a stack of jazz recordings and was horrified. “I used to listen to jazz before I gave my life to Jesus,” he said. “But then I burned all those records and sent them back to hell.” I said, “Why didn’t you give them to me?” He’s a convert. I’m not comfortable around converts.

            On New Year’s Eve 2001, my saxophonist called with a gig. “I have $200 for you if you play with the Sammy Kaye Orchestra. It is in Saratoga Springs, New York. I will drive, and they have hotel rooms for us. After 9-11, they want to do a nostalgia show, lots of swing music from World War 2.” That sounded good to me. I agreed. Even though it was Saratoga Springs on December 31, about 30 degrees below zero on a windy night.

            The gig was fine. The music lifted everybody’s spirits. As the musicians say, “The bread was green.” And then I discovered that I had a roommate for the hotel. His name was Joe. He was a trombonist who traveled the world, mostly to play music on cruise ships. He had a duffle bag with a pair of underwear, a pair of socks, a toothbrush and a razor. Then I discovered: he was a convert. Once he had been a falling-down drunk, had ex-wives and kids all over the place but didn’t know where they were, he was living in a liquid haze. But one day, God shook him awake. God said, “Shape up!” And somehow Joe landed as the lead trombonist and music director for Benny Hinn, the faith-healer TV evangelist who wore white shoes.

            Apparently the bandleader of the Sammy Kaye Orchestra thought the Presbyterian preacher ought to have Benny Hinn’s lead trombonist as a roommate. Everybody in the band was snickering about it. He was a good musician, but none of them could stand to share a hotel room with him. Indeed, he kept me awake until 4:30 in the morning, quoting Bible verses, witnessing about his faith, talking about the miracles he saw every day. Finally I said, “Joe, would you shut up? It’s 4:30.” He said, “But don’t you want to hear about Jesus?”

            He’s a convert. Ever know a convert?

            Paul the Apostle – he was a convert. People make fun of converts. They shake their heads and wag their tongues. I heard about a t-shirt in California. It read, “A Born-Again Turkey is Still a Turkey.”

            Say what you want: Paul’s life had changed. He turned 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Same zeal that he had as a Pharisee, but now his zeal is speaking of Christ. Same level energy – Paul was tireless, usually on the go, often working himself until he dropped – but his energy was one-hundred-ten percent devoted to spreading the Gospel, wherever he was, with whomever he was with. “You have heard about my previous life in Judaism,” he says. “But now they say about me, ‘He is proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy,’ and they glorified God because of me.” If nothing else, the text reminds us that God can change a person. God can turn somebody in the right direction. God can come to any person with such an abundance of holy love, that the person is transformed. They leave behind “the present evil age” and live completely for Jesus.

            All of that is shared with us in this text. But here is the thing that I’ve leading up to tell you. Ready? When God changes a human life, it isn’t always done with thunder and lightning. There can be a dramatic transformation, but others around us might not even see when it happens.

            You know that story from the book of Acts: Saul is hurling threats, persecuting the church, until Christ comes in power and glory, and knocks him off his horse. That’s how Luke recounts the story in the book of Acts. Three times the story is told by Luke. It’s big, it’s noisy, it’s brash and bold.

            But here in Galatians, we have Paul’s own story of what happened to him. He says nothing about the road to Damascus. Never mentions quite what he saw. Instead, this is what he says: “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” (1:15-16). No altar call, no pushy demand, no repeated verses of “Just As I Am, Without One Plea” to beckon you forward as the buses are waiting. Oh no.

“God … was pleased to reveal his Son to me.” That’s all he says. That’s all he ever says. In all of Paul’s own writings, this is all we get in his own words about his own conversion. Quietly he said, “It was a revelation.” Like the pulling back of a curtain, and you see who has been standing there the whole time, but your eyes could not see it until that moment. And that is enough to launch you on the trajectory of transformation.

            Others have said the same. Conversion does not have to be a big moment. It just needs to be the right moment. Like C.S. Lewis, the great Christian writer. He shrugged off belief for years. Then one day in 1929, he got on a bus. When he got on the bus, he didn’t believe. When he got off the bus, he did believe.[1] No flash of light. No booming voice. But it changed his life completely.

            Or in our own time, I think of Anne Lamott, one of the most outrageous proponents of the Christian faith. Know what she says? “I was high on drugs, wasting my life, and one night I had the nagging sense that Jesus was the annoying kitten who was meowing at the door. Finally I cursed and said, “OK, you can come in.”[2] And he never left.

            Or John Calvin, the great Christian reformer, spiritual father of the Presbyterians, back before there even were any Presbyterians. He was the brains of the Reformation, an incredible thinker. Do you know how he describes his turn toward the Christian faith? What was the great occasion of his conversion? “It happened,” he said, “in the moment when I became teachable.”[3] That’s it. Teachable, transformed. Where are the drums, the flashing lights, the sound of cymbals smashing? Not necessary. “I became teachable” – and life began anew.

            So today I introduce you to the Apostle Paul. Sometimes cranky, often forceful, sometimes troubled and annoyed – but always living completely for Jesus Christ by God’s amazing grace. It began when God was pleased to reveal his Son.

            It’s all I could ever ask God to do for you.

(c) William Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy
[2] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, p. 50
[3] John Calvin, Preface, Commentary on the Book of Psalms

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

Psalm 51
Ash Wednesday
February 13, 2013
William G. Carter
The title of my brief meditation is also the title of a recent book: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). A friend recommended it after having some trouble with the people where he worked. They were just terrible to him, he said. Apparently the trouble got so difficult that his superiors sent him off to a counselor. After a few high-priced sessions with the counselor, he confessed, “It never occurred to me that I was part of the problem.” So the counselor suggested the book: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).

            It’s a revealing read, because it reminds us that all of us have our blind spots. We create stories about ourselves and then adjust the stories if necessary to feel secure. Whether it is public scandal or private tragedy, the news spin can begin in our own imagination. We tell ourselves a story as a way of handling something that has happened. And unless we stay vigilant about the truth, the story grows until it replaces what actually happened.

            In the margin of Psalm 51, the editor says this is the prayer that King David made after he stole another man’s wife. All the particular details of that theft have been sanded away from the psalm. There is no mention that the king already five or six wives, depending on which account you read. He does not confess how he spied Bathsheba bathing, how he wanted her as if she was on the cover of a magazine, how he misused his authority to get her, how he attempted to cover up the sin, or how he finally got rid of her unimaginative husband by sending him to the front line of battle.

            But the psalm does pray, “Have mercy on me, O Lord.” Cleanse me from my sin. I am guilty. Don’t cast me away. Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

            We can only pray that way if we are honest that we are the ones who make our own mistakes. Not somebody else. Not the others in the room. We take responsibility for telling the truth about what we have done or what we have not done. That is hard work and it takes courage. It also takes truthful friends who will remind us of the very things that we have pushed out of sight.

            “Against you, and you only, have I sinned.” This is how the Psalm frames it. God creates us in beauty. God calls us to goodness. We goof it up and then say, “It wasn’t me.” This creates all kinds of pain and damage in the people around us. But the initial offense is against the God who intends us to be beautiful and good.

            The psalm says, “Lord, if you want to punish me, I know I have it coming.” And it also says, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” Because that is the intended destination: restoration. Reconciliation. Bringing broken people back into full relationship with the God who creates us in love.

            So the invitation tonight is to return. To come home. To knock off all the invented stories and say, “Here I am, Lord. You know me. You know who I am. You want my full devotion and here I am.” The Christian life is a continuing invitation to live in complete fellowship with our Maker, Judge, and Savior. It is the invitation to come home regularly and to wean ourselves from all the distractions offered by the world and our imaginations.

            One of my friends has taken to writing hymns. Here are the stanzas that she offers for this day:

Ash Wednesday comes, and Lord, we hear
The word for which our spirits yearn;
Amid this world’s distress and fear,
We hear your loving call:  “Return!”
“Return to me with all your heart—
With fasting, weeping, mourning, too.”
O God, we seek a brand new start,
A new beginning here with you.
You call to us--- the old, the young;
You summon nations strong and weak.
When we have drifted toward the wrong,
You call us back, your way to seek.
O God most merciful and kind,
Your love is not a prize we earn;
Yet in our life with you we find
The joy that comes when we return.[1]

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] © 2011 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Power of Fierce Beauty

Luke 9:28-36
February 10, 2013
William G. Carter

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

            A man I know lives near Glacier National Park. I don’t know if you have ever been there, but it is an extraordinary region in the Rocky Mountains of Montana. The main road is a zig-zag highway going up and over the mountains, called the Going to Sun Road. When you get off the slightly beaten path, the alpine landscape provides adventurous hiking and beautiful landscapes.

            My friend hikes there regularly, often taking family and visitors. On one particular hike, he and his wife were joined by their son and daughter-in-law, another friend, and her two-year-old son. They walked for a couple of hours and reached the destination, a pristine mountain lake fed by glaciers. They stood at the lakeshore admiring the five waterfalls cascading off the mountain face. They listened to and watched a couple of varied thrushes sing and flit. It stuck them all as holy ground. They stood to admire the splendor.

            Just then my friend noticed some movement about three hundred feet up the lakeshore. He looked through his binoculars to see a big mama grizzly bear and her cub. They splashed playfully through the water. He passed around the binoculars and everybody had a good look. Then Amy, his daughter-in-law, who was five months pregnant and particularly aware of the fragility of life, said, “I want to get out of here.” So they got out. It was holy ground, but it was dangerous ground.[1] It was a beautiful place, it was a fierce place, all at the same time.

            I think about his description when I hear the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus climbs a mountain with the three men of his inner circle, Peter, James and John. It begins as a place for prayer. It is a holy place. But as Jesus prays, something indescribable happens. He begins to shine with the brightness of the sun. His face changes. His dusty tunic starts to glow in dazzling light.

            It is a strange story, an unusual story. It is not the kind of thing that happens much in the Gospels, if only because appears to look so normal. He fits in with the townspeople. He is not taller or shorter. There is no sign that he is better looking than anybody else, or that he walked around with a halo over his head. Jesus is a human being. But in this moment, he is also something else. All the accounts agree it is a moment of fierce beauty, a moment both holy and dangerous.

            Luke the storyteller is teaching us something about the nature of spiritual experience. He does not explain this story and thus explain it away. Neither does he try to contain it. It is Simon Peter who tries to mark the moment. “Master, let’s document this place with a monument. Let’s set up a holy shrine. Let’s take this rare event and try to keep it with a little plaque that says Something Happened Here.” But the Gospel writer says he was clueless, that Peter did not understand the words on his own lips. It was the kind of moment that must stay untamed. It points us to the power at the heart of all life, a power that cannot be managed, forced, or predicted. God was there, in all glory and mystery. And it was a fierce beauty indeed.

These moments can come. I don’t know how frequently they happen inside churches, but plenty of people have had such moments in the wilds outside. Nature reveals a kind of power, often seductive and brutal at the same time. A snowstorm comes and it looks so pretty; and it can hurt you. The wind can blow and the trees start to sway and dance; and one of those graceful timbers can knock down a house.

I remember backpacking in the Adirondacks as a young teen, coming around the trail bend on Upper Wolfjaw Mountain. An open vista took my breath away. It was the first time I can ever remember gasping. There they were, most of the high peaks of that mountain range spread out before me. It was beautiful, stirringly beautiful, and there was no guard rail – just a twelve-hundred foot drop, about three feet ahead along the slippery trail. It was beautiful and it was frightening. I can still feel the visceral emotion of awe. Awe tastes like fear.

That seems to be what was stirring in Peter, James, and John. Jesus with his dirty tunic is suddenly glowing like he is on fire. In an instant, Moses and Elijah appear, both of them long dead, now alive. Moses bears the Law, the Torah. Elijah is the greatest of the Prophets. The entire religious history of the Jews is present in that moment. The space-time continuum is breached. No wonder Peter sputters for something to say.

Just then, the cloud of God’s Presence rolls over them. The mist is so close that it sticks to their skin. And the Voice that called all creation into existence said, “This is my Chosen One. This is my child. Listen to him!” The sound of that Voice vibrated through their bones.

And then it was over. Just like that.

Belden Lane is a Presbyterian professor at a Catholic university. He wonders out loud: why does a Bible story like this happen on a mountain? What is it about a mountain that makes such moments possible? Is it the fact that they are up in the air, closer to heaven, and heaven doesn’t have so far to touch down? Actually, he says, it’s probably that they are barren places, wild places, locations of great extremity – and whenever we find ourselves in such places in our lives, God can come with great and fearsome power.

He tells of hiking in the red rocks of northern New Mexico, in the high desert of 7000 feet. As he is climbing toward a mesa, he realizes he is lost. It frightens him. He wonders if he told enough people where he intended to hike. He recalls that thunderheads can appear out of nowhere, that flash floods can sweep down without a moment’s notice and could wash him away. The chills went up his spine. He said, “I could die out here and nobody would know it.” Then it happened: a rain storm suddenly blew in, the torrential water pounded down, a swift river formed quickly and Lane took last-minute refuge in a small cave. It was a moment of Biblical proportions, he said, and he had the sense that he was being tested to see what he was made of.

You see, what happens on the mountain does not only reveal something about Jesus; it reveals a good bit more about us. In the apparent indifference of nature, we discover if we are willing to trust God, if we have the character and the faith and the wits to stick it out. And if we do, and if we can, we come down from the mountain changed. We are different people. Exposed, wind-blown, and a bit shaken. Something happens up there that makes a difference down here.

Luke says Jesus conversed with Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet. Only Luke shares the content of the conversation. Jesus spoke with them about his “departure” which would come in Jerusalem. Actually the word “departure” is a poor translation. The better word is “exodus.” They talked about his “exodus.” Moses knows a thing or two about an Exodus – leading the slaves out of Egypt, getting out from under Pharoah’s oppression, relying on God to lead the way so they weren’t buried by the sea. And the Exodus of Jesus is the way he would lead his people out of slavery, get them out from oppression, relying on God to lead them out. He would do this in Jerusalem – on the cross, then busting out of the tomb, granting freedom to those bound by their own human brokenness. The mountaintop Jesus, in all his heavenly splendor, would get himself dirty to set his people free. The beauty of God’s rescuing love would be revealed in the fierceness of death and resurrection.

It reminds me of that little conversation in C. S. Lewis’ children’s book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The children hear about Aslan, the great Christ-Lion who is coming to set his people free. One of them asks a pair of talking beavers from the kingdom, “Is he safe?”

Mr. Beaver says, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

That’s exactly right. Is Jesus Christ safe? Is the Living One, the Chosen One, the One who Speaks Whom We Must Hear – is he safe? Of course not. He will change you. He is not safe. But he’s good. He’s very good. There is no one better. And we see him on the stark, wild mountain in the fierce beauty of his grace.

As for Peter, James, and John, I wonder if they looked at Jesus again in quite the same way. Luke says they didn’t say a word about what they saw. They probably didn’t have the words to describe it. Not then, and certainly not for a while. Before they climbed the mountain, they had seen a great deal. They watched Jesus heal, they saw him preach and teach. On his behalf, they passed out bread and fish to a huge crowd and they took note that everybody had been fed. Right before they climbed the mountain, Peter went so far to declare, “Jesus, you are the Messiah of God!”

But then, before them, he became as bright as the sun. The Voice said, “This is the Chosen One, this is my Son, this is the One to listen to.” This one. Right here. The one right in front of you. He wasn’t safe, but he was good.

Luke says Jesus went right back on the trail: he heals a convulsive boy, he teaches his leaders about humility, he broadened their limited understanding to see there are many on God’s team. Then, when he hears a couple of them wanting to curse and destroy a Samaritan village, he yells at them and says, “Knock it off!” Because he is the One who they saw on the mountain:  

·         God’s Chosen One to cure the captives of disease and desolation
·         God’s Own Child who comes in the deepest humility of heaven
·         God’s Beloved Messiah who gives himself to set his loved ones free

Oh, I know. We have heard plenty about Jesus: the ancient sage, the Jewish rabble-rouser, the woodcutter with the dirty feet. But sometimes we might see him, really see him, and we glimpse so much more. Why, he is beautiful . . . and he is not safe. He could change your life if you invite him to shine in his fierce beauty.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007) 131

Sunday, February 3, 2013

God's Hand is Upon My Shoulder

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Ordinary 4
February 3, 2013
William G. Carter

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Why are you here? That’s the question for today. Why are you here?

I don’t mean to interrogate your attendance. Who knows what you might say? “I’m here because I believe,” or “I’m here because I want to believe,” or “I’m here out of habit,” or “I’m here because my friends are here,” or “I’m here because I want something,” or because “I don’t know where else to go.” Oh, that’s not what I’m asking.

I’m not asking about your attendance in church, but rather your attendance on the planet: Why are you here? For what purpose are you alive? That’s the mystery behind these opening words from Jeremiah.

God speaks to a young boy and says, “I have something I want you to do.” These opening words of Jeremiah’s book bring us into the mystery of God’s calling upon our lives. At the beginning of a very long record of his life and work, a great prophet of Israel remembers how everything began. God had a hand on Jeremiah’s shoulder. God said, “I have something that I want you to do.”

Some people have a strong response to a story like that. Perhaps they say, “Jeremiah was lucky. God had a direct pipeline to his heart. The message got through.” Or others may say, “I’m glad that didn’t happen to me. I have no intention of thinking my orders come from heaven. I want to do what I want to do.” Or maybe they confess, “I don’t want God to make me into a prophet. I’ve seen enough history to know how poorly that usually turns out.”

But the story that we have is both brief and realistic. We do not know God got through with the message. Nobody can say if it was a dream, direct speech in a vision, or simply a growing awareness that Jeremiah had a greater purpose for his life, that a heavenly casting director selected him to play a role. As for realism, Jeremiah did push back; “I’m only a youth,” he said, “and I don’t know what to say.” God promises to stay after him for years to come, to give him the words when the time is right, and to put him in the places where he needed to make a difference. God’s hand will lead him – and God’s fingers will touch his lips.

We don’t need to let this be a spooky story. Actually it offer a dramatization of a deep and important question for every single person: why am I here? What purpose for my life does God set me before me?

I have asked those questions in seasons of my life; I imagine you have asked them on occasion. The issue is always more than a job. It’s a matter of purpose. Anybody can get a job. Look at the want ads: there is no shortage of jobs. But as all of us know, so many of those jobs have no purpose. Who declares, “The reason that I was put on this planet was to dry off cars when they come through the car wash?” Or who says, “God gave me this life on earth so I can sell nutritional drinks at the local gym?” Perhaps there are a few fortunate ones for whom this is true, but for most workers, it is merely a job, an unnecessary job if it weren’t for the money. As the bumper sticker announced, “I owe, I owe, it’s off to work to go.”

But what would you do if money were not the issue? How would you spend your time? What difference do you believe you could make in the time that God still sets before you?

The truth is, if we have any abilities at all, there is no perfect job anywhere that we can use all our skills. In fact, there are jobs where the employer does not want you to do some of the things that you are able to do. To survive, you put some of abilities on the shelf and focus where you need to focus. Or you find other ways to utilize those gifts that God has given and you have cultivated.

And late at night, when nobody but God is around, perhaps the holy voice will say, “I have work that I appoint you to do.” The appointment is there, regardless of how the people at your job feel about it, or whatever they think they are paying you to do.

There is a distinction between a job and a vocation. A job is where somebody pays you to do what they need you to do. Vocation is literally a “calling,” God’s calling, God’s invitation for you to do what God put you on the planet to do. Sometimes job and vocation overlap, sometimes they don’t. But one thing I know for certain: life flourishes when it intersects with our life’s work.

If you have not heard any holy voices lately to give you an assignment, there is a simple test that you might try. It comes from frequently quoted advice from writer Frederick Buechner, who spells out the word “vocation.” Vocation, he says,

. . . comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a [person] is called to by God. There are all difference kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.

If you get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a), but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. Neither the hair shirt not the soft berth will do.

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.[1]

God knows us intimately. God made us the way we are. What strikes us as interests and inclinations can be holy invitations to find our calling --- or for our calling to find us. The challenge is to not think too highly of ourselves – nor to think too lowly – but to sink into the daily tasks that give life both to us and to God’s world. For that is where God calls us to be.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper and Row)