Living a Called Life

by | Feb 3, 2019

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.”
Jeremiah 1:4-10

In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Luke 4:21-30

The poet David Whyte tells the story of an old Irish monk standing alone at the edge of the monastic precinct. When he hears the church bell toll, calling him to prayer, he says to himself, “That is the most beautiful sound in the world.” It is the call to go deep within oneself to experience God, to dwell in the place of imagination and creativity, where we discover our truest self and experience healing, and it is where God dwells within us. But then the monk hears a blackbird calling from out in a field, and he says to himself, “That’s also the most beautiful sound in the world.” This is the call to adventure, to set out toward new horizons, beyond ourselves and what we know; to go out into world right now, as we are, and offer our gift.   

David Whyte uses this image of one person between two calls to describe the creative tension of a human being truly alive. At our best, when we live most fully what it means to be human, we dwell in that space between the call to go deep within ourselves for healing, personal growth, creative expression, and divine encounter with God, and the call out toward new horizons and all the adventures that wait beyond our sight, to give of ourselves now in whatever way we can.

Whyte’s observation, and the core conviction of his own writing, is that as our lives unfold, these two calls are always in conversation. In some seasons of life, one of the two may present itself in a ways that demands full our attention. We’re thrust into new circumstances for which we can feel woefully unprepared, yet out we must go; or we are called back to ourselves by circumstances that are simply non-negotiable, at least for the time being. (David Whyte, as quoted in his talk, Compass Points: Directions for a Future Life, December 15, 2017.)

What the two experiences have in common is the call itself, the feeling that we’re being summoned, somehow, by our life circumstances or an internal, driving energy that spiritual traditions attribute to the voice of God. However it comes to us and wherever it directs, the sense of being called to something, or somewhere, is one of the most powerful and persuasive of spiritual encounters. It seems to be a uniquely human experience, precisely because of this element of choice. Even when it feels like we have no choice, we can, in fact, choose to say no to the summons, or refuse to give our hearts to it, even if our bodies have no choice. We can choose, in Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann’s haunting phrase, “to live an uncalled life,” with no reference point or sense of vocation whatsoever. Consigning others to live uncalled lives through the forces of injustice or oppression is among the greatest of evils; choosing it for oneself among the greatest human tragedies. Conversely, we can say yes, give our consent and whole-hearted engagement, even in response to a call we would have given anything to not to receive, and in so doing become fully alive.

The monk in David Whyte’s story speaks of the call of both the bell and the blackbird as the most beautiful sound in the world. Feeling oneself called can, indeed, be a beautifully affirming experience. It’s breathtaking to witness in another human being when the call is rooted in joy. Perhaps some of you remember a film from nearly 20 years ago that later became a Broadway musical, Billy Elliot. It tells the story of a boy growing up in a English coal mining town who discovers a love for ballet dancing. Against all kinds of resistance from his family, dance was clearly Billy’s call, both inwardly for his soul’s sake, and outwardly for the world. When an instructor asked him what it felt like when he danced, he said, “It’s like electricity going through me.” He went on to become one of London’s premier ballet dancers.

More often than not, the call arises from pain, for the sake of individual healing or societal transformation, and thus the choice to accept it for one’s life requires great courage. I spoke with a young woman recently who has experienced a fair amount of trauma in her life, both in early childhood, due to bad parenting, and then as a teenager when she was diagnosed with a life threatening illness that required major surgery and a permanent change in lifestyle. Thankfully, she recovered and has all her life ahead of her. She is a remarkable person–intelligent, insightful and kind. Right now she’s dealing with the emotional impact of her medical crisis. She’s seeing a therapist, which is good for her, but as a result, painful memories of her early childhood are also surfacing. All of this is making her angry. She’s 20 years old and she just wants to live a normal young adult life–go to school, spend time with her boyfriend, and do all the things other young adults do. Yet here she is, summoned now to go deep within herself, for the sake of healing and growth. She’s sorely tempted to ignore the call and forge ahead with life, but she’s wise enough, God bless her, to recognize that this is a sacred, necessary time.  

Contrast her experience with that of those who hear a call, right now, to go out beyond themselves and offer their gift, for the sake of someone else. Again, it’s often pain behind their passion, pain that helps them persevere in their efforts when met with societal indifference or outright resistance. Through my work in gun violence prevention, I’ve met several parents whose children were killed either in one of the mass shootings that briefly commands our collective attention or in one of the more common incidents of gun violence that take its daily toll in numbers that we, as a society, have chosen to accept or ignore. They feel woefully ill-equipped for the work of social change to which they now feel called; they would never have chosen such a path for themselves, but here they are, determined to honor their children’s lives by doing all they can to spare other children their same fate.

Throughout the Bible, there are countless stories of men, women, and young children who feel their lives summoned, called by either circumstance or explicitly by God for some holy purpose. Sometimes the call drives them first into a season of solitude and prayer, or a time of apprenticeship and preparation; other times the call thrusts them into action with little warning. These are the stories that resonate across time and culture; they practically jump off the page as we read them, for they describe that universal experience of being summoned by life, summoned by God. Invariably–and this is what make the stories so compelling–there is almost resistance to the call, inwardly, or from others, or both.

One such story is the call of the prophet Jeremiah. According to the biblical book that bears his name, Jeremiah was chosen by God at young age for an extremely difficult task. He was the one to speak God’s word to the people of Israel during the time of the nation’s destruction and the painful season of exile that was to follow. The words that God would give Jeremiah to speak over the course of his life were not easy receive, for God was not going to spare the people of Israel from the consequences of their choices and the suffering they would endure. Nor would Jeremiah be spared, for he would bear the brunt of the people’s resistance to God.

When Jeremiah first hears the call: “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,” he wonders why God would call him to this task, given his age. “Truly I do not know how to speak,” he said, “for I am only a boy.” But God responded: “Do not doubt your call; you shall go where I send you and speak what I command you. I will be with you, and put the words in your mouth.” (Jeremiah 1:1-4) Throughout his life, Jeremiah would wonder for other reasons why God had summoned him to this work, but of the call itself he no longer doubted. He described it like a fire inside that he could not hold in. (20:9)

In the Gospel according to St. Luke, we are given a glimpse of Jesus’ sense of call, and how it affected those closest to him, in a story that tells of his homecoming. It takes place in the early stages of his public ministry, right after his baptism by John in the Jordan River and his time of temptation in the wilderness. He has been traveling through the villages near the Sea of Galilee, teaching and healing, and beginning to make a name for himself. Then he goes home to Nazareth. On the sabbath, Jesus attends synagogue worship and when the time comes for reading from Scripture, Jesus stands up and reads from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to give sight to the blind, to set free prisoners and the oppressed.” Then he said the most astonishing thing: “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.

His family and friends, those who had known him all his life and had a hand in raising him, were at first filled with awe and pride for their hometown boy. But then he went on to say things that apparently offended everyone, in essence, that no prophet was ever accepted in his hometown and he knew that he wouldn’t be either. As the story’s told, the people of Nazareth immediately about-faced and drove him out of town, attempting to throw him off a cliff! Whether the people of Nazareth changed their estimation of Jesus that quickly, or if this story is a foreshadowing of how Jesus would ultimately be treated, I can’t say. But the truth remains: for Jesus, as for Jeremiah, a fate of rejection awaited as a result of the life to which he was called.

Not every call leads to rejection, thankfully. Sometimes they lead us to joy and the fulfillment of our deepest desires. Yet there is always some cost to the most significant calls, with no guarantee of outcome when choosing to wholeheartedly accept them. Indeed, it should serve as fair warning to recognize that most of our greatest heroes did not live to see the fruits of their dreams. But the outcome of a called life isn’t as noteworthy, as internally significant, as the call itself, and the willingness to trust where the call leads. You know that it’s real when you’re willing to face whatever outcome lies ahead, because you know that the path is yours. One of our sons is an artist, and as a theatre major in college he was often asked by the well-meaning adults his life if he had “a plan B,” should he not succeed in pursuing his dreams. He astonishing reply: “I don’t think of my life that way. I’ll follow this path wherever it takes me. When I need to make a change along the way, that will become my new Plan A.”

I cannot know how you sense your life calling you now, but I have no doubt that it is. I have no doubt that God is at work in you, Jesus is walking with you, and the Spirit is all around you. My prayer today is that God will give you courage and strength to continue on whatever path is yours. Sometimes it may seem as if the call you’re hearing is insignificant, or the wrong one, and I urge you not to heed that critical voice. Listen instead for the most beautiful sound in the world calling and cheering you on.  

And I encourage you to pray each day for the grace to accept the creative tension of the inward and outward call, the ways God is asking you to trust that you are called to your life, the only you can live. For the world would be unspeakably diminished without the gift of you, fully alive.  

“The Bell and the Blackbird,” by David Whyte (in The Bell and the Blackbird: Poetry (Langley WA: Many Rivers Press, 2018, p.23-24)

The sound
of a bell
still reverberating,

or a blackbird
from a corner
of a

Asking you
to wake
into this life
or inviting you
to one that waits.

Either way
takes courage,
either way wants you
to be nothing
but that self that
is no self at all,
wants you to walk
to the place
where you find
you already know
how to give
every last thing

The approach
That is also
The meeting
Without any
At all.

That radiance
You have always
Carried with you
As you walk
Both alone
And completely
In friendship
By every corner
Of the world