Saturday, August 30, 2014

What's Your Calling?

Exodus 3:1-15
Jazz Communion
William G. Carter

   "So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Here is a question worthy of Moses, musicians, and the rest of us: how did you get into the work that you do? If you stay with the question, you hear a lot of stories.

I have a college classmate by the name of Sherrie Maricle. She has become a famous musician. She leads a big band, plays Carnegie Hall with the Philharmonic, and travels the world with a pair of drum sticks. How did it all get started? Was it because she had Al Hamme as a college professor? No, it started a lot earlier. When she was a young teenage girl, somebody took her to a jazz concert and she saw Buddy Rich play drums. She didn’t only hear him, she saw him. In those days, Buddy was a hurricane of swing, a force of nature in every way. For no rational reason, that teenage girl blurted out, “I want to do that.” The unlikely decision shaped her life. And that’s what she is doing today. Call it a “burning bush moment.”

Or there was that professional piano player, Bobby, who couldn’t keep a gig. His father was a famous singer, an opera singer. But the talent didn’t seem to translate. So this kid was scuffling around for work and landed in Salt Lake City. He was 27 years old, newly married, playing accompaniment piano for the dance department at the University of Utah. One day in January, he was walking home for a lunch break when he heard a voice – The Voice. The Voice said, “You are a singer now.” Bobby McFerrin said he suddenly knew it in his bones. He didn’t expect it, anymore than he believed someday he would get ten Grammy awards and a number one hit. But he had a “burning bush moment” sometime between 12 and 12:30 p.m. on a January sidewalk in Salt Lake City.[1]

It’s not a moment unique to musicians, although I would surmise that each of these talented musicians had a moment – or a series of moments – and suddenly they knew: this is the reason why I am on the planet. I have known school teachers who feel this way, plumbers who believe they are called to their vocation, social workers who believe they have found life’s purpose, to say nothing of retired people who doing precisely what they have always wanted to do.

It’s all part of our calling. As someone says, “God can call us in many directions, to different people and different places. Vocation is rarely one single, clearly defined role. Instead it is usually a blend of relationships, work, activity, obligations, and passions. Vocation involves the ways we are sent out …to serve those who hunger and to share the gifts, skills, and opportunities we have been given.”[2]

Sometimes it is a special opportunity. A young woman told me about her pregnancy. It was not expected, especially since she and her boyfriend had not set a wedding date. But then the baby was coming, and it threw off the schedule a bit. A simple wedding was held, a bedroom identified as a nursery and painted. “And when my daughter was born,” she said, “and I looked into her eyes for the first time, I knew that nothing else really mattered. Loving her was going to be my daily work. It was through loving her, I could love the rest of the world.” I can’t think of a more powerful story of a burning bush moment.

Moses was minding his own business as a shepherd. He wasn’t looking for anything else to do. He had a wife, he had a son, he had a flock of sheep to watch on behalf of his father-in-law. It was enough. Then came the revelation, the moment, the Voice: “There is work for you to do.” He resisted the invitation. He didn’t think he was qualified. He could not imagine the whole thing at once. “Lord, you’ve dialed the wrong number. I have no standing before Pharoah. I am not known for being a religious guy or a good moral example. Unlike my brother Aaron, I don’t talk so good.” God listened for a while, tapped his fingers and waited him out, and then God said, “Now listen, Moses, this is the work that I need you to do.”

It’s one of the great moments in the Bible, the true-blue burning bush moment. Other Bible characters have their big moments too, just like the rest of us. Prophets are summoned. Leaders are beckoned. Love is awakened. Truth is revealed. Moses is called by God to an enormous task. Actually it’s a series of tasks, or actually an unfolding lifetime of one thing after another. If we pay attention to his burning bush moment, we learn something about the ways God continues to call us into the work of our lives. There are many things to say, but I notice three clues.

The first clue is the call is like a river. There are many streams contributing, many places of entry, but it all feeds into the main course. Take note, Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace. He already knows the family of Pharoah. He was originally the child of a Hebrew priest. He has spent a long time out of sight, some say forty years in the wilderness of Midian. He knows how to tend a flock. None of this is wasted when God gets his attention.

Like Bobby McFerrin said, “The biggest inspiration to me was my dad.” His father dubbed in the singing voice when Sidney Poitier filmed “Porgy and Bess.” Bobby says, “He had such gratitude for his gift and was very humble.” There was a time he said to himself, “I’m not going to do what my dad did.” But later on, everything began to fit together.

So when reflecting on your life’s work, one of the clues is that it often takes a while to discover the full picture of what we are called to do. Along the way there were probably moments of insight, bushes burning that arrested your attention, but you have to stand back and see the whole river with various streams contributing, and it is all moving in the same direction.

The second clue about calling is that it is always something that God wants to get done in the world. Did you hear the Holy Voice in the Exodus story? God says, “I’ve heard the suffering of my people, so Moses, here’s what I want you to do about it.” God pays attention to what needs to get done, and when the time is right, God puts us in the place to do something about it.

I reflect on my own sense of calling. When I was fifteen, somebody called from a nursing home a few towns away. The activity director said, “Could you come and play some piano music for the people here?” Well, I had never played for people anywhere. And I had never been to a nursing home. How difficult could this be? I was immersing myself in ragtime, so I bundled up my Scott Joplin books, got one of my parents to give me a ride, and went to make some music.

Nothing could have prepared me. There were people in wheelchairs who could not speak. An old man with crippled hands tried in vain to clap. A lady moaned whenever she enjoyed a song, and sometimes I was already into the next song when she voiced her appreciation. A couple of funky smells and sounds. I was fifteen year old. When I finished, they cheered, and I went out to the station wagon, sat there and cried. I was in shock from the suffering around me. I later learned they were completely ecstatic. In between my shock and their joy was the beginning of a tug to do my life’s work.
What is it that I do? Make music, care for people, spend time with those in need? All the above and then some. To this day, once a month I head over to lead worship in a nursing home, bang out some syncopated hymns, and serve communion to people who are hungry for joy and good news. It may be the most important thing that I do all month. It isn’t the only thing that I do, but it lies pretty close to what God wants to get done. And it isn’t the only thing that God wants to get done, but it is one thing that I can do.

A third clue about our callings: when we are doing what we were put on this planet to do, there is great freedom. I’m talking about Exodus Freedom, about Get-Out-Of-Slavery Freedom. Shake off the chains. Shrug off the doubts and self-criticisms. A good calling may involve a lot of hard labor - but you do it because this is what the work requires, and this is the work that set you free. A good calling is one when you are willing to make sacrifices to get the work done, but you are never willing to sacrifice the work itself. That’s one way to know it is a calling. Ever feel like that? And if you feel good about what you do with your life, chances are others are feeling good too. There’s a lot of freedom here.

Now, I know there are things we have to do to bring in the money. But there is more to our life’s work than bringing in the money. Moses tended the sheep for forty years up in the hills. It paid the bills. He didn’t show any signs of discontent. But the whole time he was being prepared for the next chapter in his life. I believe that. A good calling often involves a lot of time that is spent out of sight.

And life doesn’t always come together quickly. When God speaks up from the burning bush, Moses steps back. His life was settled, you know. It would take another chapter in the book of Exodus for God to talk him into leaving, and then another chapter for him to pack up and go back to Egypt. The God of the Bible is never in a hurry. But when the right moment comes to start moving, almost everything clicks into place. The current is strong in God’s river.

In one of her poems, Mary Oliver says, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”[3] It’s a good question for Labor Day weekend, a good question for anybody who is still breathing, still wishing to make a positive difference in a hurting world. What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

How you answer really does matter. You have the ability to take joy to others. To relieve human suffering. To help someone learn to trust again. To put food in somebody else’s stomach. To put a song in the air. To mend the broken-hearted. To set somebody free. There are burning bushes all along your path, and no shortage of invitations to offer to the world what God has specifically given to you.

One thing’s for sure: to take seriously your life’s calling is to stand on holy ground. It is the place where God meets you, where God invites you to make a difference, where God promises to set you free.

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

[2] Laura Kelly Fanucci, “Called to Life”, Collegeville Institute, 2013, p. 23
[3] "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver, The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays. Beacon Press, 2008.

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