Sunday, February 08, 2004

Call Stories #4, 5 and 6

Call Stories # 4, 5, and 6
(Isaiah 6.1-8, Luke 5.1-11)
Jeremiah 1.4-10
February 8 2004

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 sayd 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.”

In the Presbyterian Church USA, when someone expresses an interest in going to seminary, or in perhaps becoming a minister of the Word and Sacrament, they are sent to, not surprisingly, a committee. This committee is called the “Committee on Preparation for Ministry” (often called the “CPM”) and their job is to make sure that people who enter the ministry are properly prepared. A part of their job is also to make sure that candidates for the ministry are truly called by God to this task in the church, and, of course, to keep out crazy people.
Now, the first thing that happens when you walk into this room full of ministers and elders from churches across the presbytery is that they ask you to tell your call story. Can you imagine what would happen if someone walked in and said, “well, I had a vision, and an angel burned my mouth with a hot coal, and I said, ‘yes, of course I’ll go!’”. Or if someone said, “God put her words in my mouth and said I was supposed to go wherever she sent and speak whatever I was told.” Or if someone said, “well, I was out fishing one day, and Jesus came and almost sank my boat, so I decided he must be for real and when he said “come on now, let’s go.” I left behind my business, the raw fish in the boat, my dirty nets, and my family and just walked on down the beach.” The committee would probably not make any attempt to hide their shock and general displeasure that a church session had allowed this person to come to presbytery rather than suggesting a good mental health professional.
No, the CPM would much rather hear stories like mine, where the candidate says, “I grew up in an unchurched family, I read the Bible in high school, and the Spirit really spoke to me through the scripture, so I started going to church. God was really moving in that congregation so I decided to join, and I was baptized there at age 18. I still feel that God is at work in me and I want to try to do what God tells me to do, because I’m just not happy fighting the Holy Spirit all the time!” Or maybe like the person who went to meet the CPM for the first time the same day I did. He grew up in the church, knows all the good old hymns, the members of his congregation love him, and he feels pulled to new church development projects in Hispanic neighborhoods. Even I could practically hear Jesus when the man talked.
But sometimes call stories just aren’t like that. In Isaiah’s case, it was painful—he must have had at least third degree burns from that coal. In Jeremiah’s case he didn’t want to go, and throughout his whole life he was persecuted, beaten, and often unhappy because no one liked him, but God had put God’s words in Jeremiah’s mouth so Jeremiah just couldn’t keep silent. In fact, later in the book he wrote that when he tried to keep quiet, the Word was like a fire in his bones and he just couldn’t keep it inside. These prophets were literally on fire for God. God called and they followed, even to places they didn’t understand or want to go.
I feel like I can resonate with the “going to places one doesn’t understand” call. I spent January in Jamaica. Last May, when I found out I was going there, I was excited. I had heard some things about Jamaica—sun, sand, surf, nice crafts for low prices, lots of swimming…the commercials for the Sandals resort look great! And Air Jamaica advertises champagne service between Atlanta and Montego Bay—how exciting! So last summer and fall, I had lots of comments about how nice it must be to be taking a month off from school, work, and cold weather to go on vacation.
But, during the months of November and December my group got to know some of the details of our trip from the professor—and from some people who had been on the trip in the past (often a much more telling story). We learned that we would be in Kingston for most of the three weeks. We learned that Jamaica is what is now known as a “Developing Nation”—which used to be called “3rd world.” We learned that crime is a huge problem, that drug smuggling and drug usage are the most common crimes, and that the murder rate in Kingston is 2-3 times that of Atlanta. That made my mom feel better. We learned that the history of the country was rooted in death—the Spanish brought death to the natives, the British brought slavery so brutal that slaves died so quickly they never had families like they did in the US, and there was a constant flow of African slaves into the country until emancipation—which came in the 1830’s, well before it did in the US. We learned that the economy, formerly held up by sugarcane, is now mainly based on tourism in the north, and on bauxite (the base for aluminum) in the mountains. The southern half of the island, particularly the southeastern corner where Kingston is located, has very little in the way of jobs. We learned that we would be staying at the United Theological College of the West Indies, in cottages which would have four bedrooms and a bathroom, and that we would eat meals at the University cafeteria. We learned that chicken and fish were the most popular foods—bad news for a vegetarian!
And so we began to try to explain that we weren’t going on a vacation, that we were going to stay in a third-world city, a city that contains half the island’s population. And then, suddenly, the holidays were over, the first week of January had arrived, and it was time to go! We went to the airport very early in the morning. And now, I can say in retrospect that Air Jamaica is NOT my favorite airline. We finally arrived in Kingston (though just barely, some of us thought) and were met by sounds, smells, and a lack of air conditioning despite the 90 degree weather. We got to the seminary and were greeted by a professor, who explained our schedule to us. In the mornings we would have lectures on different sectors of Jamaican life: the arts, health care, families, crime and the prison system, the economy, Rastafarianism, etc. In the afternoons we would pile onto our bus and visit places like hospitals, prisons, missions, children’s homes, schools, churches, even a bauxite plant. In the evenings we would have group reflection and worship. “Where is our free time?” we wondered. Did we have any chances to go to the pool, to take naps, to walk around? Well, UTC is very near one of Kingston’s many ghetto neighborhoods, so we were not to walk around. The rest of our question was answered by, basically, a “no.” So, having heard the schedule, we went to our cottages. They literally were four bedrooms and an attached bathroom. It wasn’t long before we learned that the cottages do not have hot water. Dinnertime came and we learned that curried goat is also a common food in Jamaica. And I ate the first of many servings of “rice and peas”—white rice with a few red beans cooked in.
Now, this may sound like a place not many people would want to go. My mosquito net was the first thing to come out of the suitcase. The lizard that lived in our fourth bedroom was kept under close watch. Our key was in the door at all times, because we were to lock ourselves in, to lock ourselves out, to basically keep the door locked 24 hours a day. It was hot, and the windows are the slatted type that open so bugs can come in, but hot air doesn’t seem to go far. All in all, our first night was quite the interesting experience!
But soon we were off and running, meeting people, going places, visiting churches, playing with children, and seeing God at work even in that place of great poverty. The majority of the people in Kingston live in neighborhoods lined with corrugated aluminum shacks…but always in view of the area called “Beverly Hills”—up on the hill, with large, ostentatious houses (even by our standards). Kingston is dirty and crowded, goats roam freely around the roads, garbage piles burn on the street, and there are so many interesting smells that I can’t describe them to you. Suffice it to say that “interesting” is a euphemism carefully chosen.
We met some amazing people: like Dave Spence, the pastor of the North Street United Church, in the inner city area of Old Kingston. He is the only pastor, there are several hundred members, and the congregation runs a daycare, a school, skills classes for women in the community, a computer room, a health clinic, a program where nurses and psychologists visit teenagers at home to talk to them about healthy lifestyle choices, a bakery…the list goes on and on. I got tired just listening to the man talk! He was so clearly called to that place, in that time—his amazing energy, his commitment to the people of the community, his willingness to listen when people want to share their needs, and his vision for what God’s community ought to be like were absolutely awe-inspiring. He was an Isaiah—he was touched, and when God called he said, “Here I am, send me!!” You can practically see him, like an eager child, hand raised so high that he’s almost standing up, going “ooh, ooh, mememememe!!!!” We met some children at the Mustard Seed Community who had been abandoned because they were handicapped—children with cerebral palsy, elephantitis, scoliosis so severe that their ribcages were literally twisted. These children had bright eyes, though, when they could open them, and they loved to be touched. They were beautiful children. We met children at schools, who wanted to touch our white skin and my curly hair, who wanted to know if I wore contact lenses, who begged us to come visit their classroom so they could show off the good work they’d done. And we met the people who run these places—the priest in charge of the Mustard Seed community was practically Mother Teresa for some of us. The teachers who have over 40 2nd graders in their class. People who do fantastic work with limited resources. People who love all God’s children. People who come to work every day even though there was a gunfight in the neighborhood yesterday and a teacher was shot last year at this time. People who really felt that they did not need to be afraid, because God was with them, and they were chosen and appointed to do this work for God’s people.
Something amazing began to happen while we were in Kingston. The fear and anxiety that I, at least, and I know others of our group, had felt about going to this country where we would be so obviously white and so obviously wealthy began to disappear. It was as if God said to us “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” After all, here we were, in a place we didn’t know…because God had called us and said “you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” We went and we saw, and we listened, and we spoke, and we made friends. Soon we could all see that we were sent to this place…and many of us didn’t want to come back. Not just because it was warm there, and we kept hearing about the freezing weather here, not just because we had new friends, or the opportunity to go to the beach in only 4 hours….but because the church in Jamaica is vibrant, there is work to be done, and we wanted to be a part of that work, that amazing new thing God is doing.
But we had to come back. Because God is doing amazing new things right here in our own churches. God doesn’t just call people to exotic locations. God doesn’t just call people who are especially smart, especially wealthy, or especially educated. God calls the ordinary people. Jeremiah was a young adult when he had his experience—one who didn’t want the responsibility, not unlike many of us 20- and 30-somethings today. Simon Peter, James, and John, were ordinary fishermen. Isaiah was an average Israelite. Dave Spence is a regular person. The 2nd grade teacher at Calabar primary school, with 40 kids in her class, is an ordinary person. The people who come before CPMs around the country are students, workers, unemployed persons, parents, grandparents, daughters... they haven’t necessarily had a grand vision of God in the heavenly court surrounded by angels. If they have they won’t tell the committee. No…God calls ordinary people in ordinary ways, to do extraordinary work.
God doesn’t only call individuals, but indeed calls whole congregations, the whole church. The Presbyterian Book of Order lays out several things the church is called to do: to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, to fight injustice, to feed the hungry, to minister to those in need. And then it says a most amazing thing: The church is called to do this “even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ.”
And so we are the ones who are called. We are the ones who share the gospel with a hungry world. We are the ones who point beyond ourselves to the One who calls us. God tells us not to be afraid—for God is with us as we go to all to whom we are sent, as we speak all we are commanded, as we leave everything and follow.

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