The Lord said to me, “Do not say that I am only a boy,” for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.”
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.” For it is the call to depth, to dwell in the place of imagination and creativity where we discover our true self and the presence of God 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, to go out into world right now, as we are, and offer our gift. (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, either by our life circumstances or an internal, driving energy that all spiritual traditions attribute to the voice of God. This sense of being called to something, or somewhere, is among the most powerful and persuasive of spiritual encounters.
To be called is a uniquely human experience, because of the element of choice. Even when it feels as if we have no choice, we can, in fact, choose to say no to the summons, or refuse to give our hearts to what our bodies are forced to accept. 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. 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.
In worship services this month, take note of the powerful theme of call in the Scripture texts. Each week we hear courageous stories of those who feel their lives summoned, called either by circumstance or explicitly by God for some holy purpose. Biblical characters practically leap off the page and speak to us, across time and culture, of that universal experience. Invariably–and this is what make their stories so compelling–there is almost resistance to the call, inwardly, or from others, or both.
Last week we heard the call of Jeremiah, the boy prophet God chose for a most difficult task, and of Jesus’ recognition, or perhaps, announcement to his hometown of his call as he read in synagogue from the prophet Isaiah. This week, we’ll hear Isaiah’s call, and that of Simon Peter, when Jesus invited him to leave his fishing boat and follow him. Later this month, we’ll hear the story of Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, only to find himself as a result in a position to save an entire nation from famine–and to forgive his brothers. The season of Epiphany ends with the story of Jesus on the mountain of his transfiguration, as he prepares himself to enter Jerusalem and meet his destiny there.
There is always some cost to the most significant of calls, with no guarantee of outcome when choosing to 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. May 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. 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, that only you can live. For the world would be unspeakably diminished without the gift of your called, and faithful, life.