The Inner Terrain of a Called Life
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.”
I am among you as one who serves.
On behalf of all gathered in this beautiful Cathedral, and those worshiping with us via livestream, let me say to you, the six to be ordained, that it is a privilege to be here. We are blessed to have walked with you on your path toward ordained ministry.
Each of you has unique gifts of spiritual insight and exuberance, a joy for life, and compassion born of the particular suffering that has marked you. As Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us all, “It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our experience of suffering that makes us able to heal. . . Expertise cures, but wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people. For the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise.”1
I’d like to speak to you tonight about the inner terrain of “the called life.” It isn’t, of course, a life unique to the ordained. Indeed, the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann argues that the great hersey of our time is the notion that it’s possible, even desirable to live an uncalled life, with no other reference point than itself.2
You are blessed to know both the gift and the cost of a called life, a summoned life, which is the God-given potential for every human being. Everything I have to say you already know, but I pray it’s helpful to hear these truths as we give thanks for this particular claim God has placed in our heart.
The overriding characteristic of the inner terrain of a called life is gratitude, even amid struggle. Now I know, as do you, that in Scripture many of those called by God to a particular task respond with protest, a recitation of all the reasons they couldn’t possibly do or be what God is asking of them. And that is a common response to those who sense a call to God toward ordination. But as Hamlet’s mother said watching an actor overplay her lines, “They protesteth too much, methinks.” For when the reality sinks in, that God has, in fact, called you to step up, to say yes, to do the thing you felt you could not do, or even more amazingly, to do the thing you always wanted to do but never dreamed possible, while there is certainly a gulp factor and considerable hardship ahead, there is also profound gratitude for the life that is ours to claim and to live.
Again, this isn’t an experience reserved only for the ordained, nor is being called always, or even usually, tied to one’s job. For example, part of the call on my life right now is to care for my 91-year old mother. It’s not in my job description and it wasn’t my plan, but her well-being is a claim on my life. God has been very clear about that with me. Caring for her is but one of the reference points beyond myself to which I have been called. Yes, there are times when it’s hard and inconvenient, but it’s also a gift for which I pray to receive with gratitude.
You are called to ordained ministry, and not because of how marvelous you are, although as the poem I asked you to read earlier this evening declares, “you are more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach.”3 Your marvelousness is true about you, but so is everything else–the whole catastrophe of your existence. All of you is swept up into this call. That’s the amazing part, that the One for whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid has called you and called me. How could we respond with anything but gratitude?
It’s essential for us not only to feel but practice gratitude, because another dimension of its inner terrain is heartache.
Being called will break your heart. You know this. There’s no avoiding it. First of all, you can count on making a lot of mistakes, some of them quite spectacular. You will break your own heart in the ways that you fail. Moreover, the world and the church is filled with other human beings–imperfect, broken, sinful human beings, just like you. They’ll break your heart, too. To complicate things further, no matter where your vocational path takes you, this is a challenging time to be a Christian leader, and the challenges in the Episcopal Church are real.
I suppose it’s helpful to know in advance that your heart will be broken, but advance knowledge doesn’t really buffer the impact when it happens. That’s one reason why we all need support systems, to help us get through the heartbreaking times. There is no shame in asking for help. Nor is a broken heart the end of the world. As I said earlier, your broken heart will help heal other broken hearts.
That points to yet another dimension of the inner terrain call, and that is the need to cultivate resilience, and persistence, or what some in leadership circles are referring to nowadays as “grit.”
For at the heart of this call is leadership, servant leadership to be sure, but leadership nonetheless. We are called to lead people, be it another person or family, or a congregation, student body, or an entire community from wherever they are now to the place God beckons. Incidentally, the hardest person to lead, it’s been said, is yourself, and that’s part of the call, too–to listen to how and where God is beckoning you and then to move, as best you can, toward that horizon.
Resistance to leadership is to be expected, both internally and from others. As a result, those of us called to lead have no choice but to live and move and have our being in what has been aptly described as “the messy middle,” that place where nothing is clear, where what you thought was a God-inspired idea goes nowhere, where those who called you to lead them are now resisting you with everything they’ve got, and it occurs to you that working as a barista in your neighborhood coffee shop seems like a more fruitful place for ministry than the church.
The last dimension of the inner terrain of this call I’ll mention today is the capacity to dream. This is the gift of hope. Hope initially expresses itself in a vision for what the world could be, what the church could be, and a deep desire in us to get to that hopeful place. I often tease clergy when they describe the church they would like to serve: you know, that healthy, multicultural congregation, with enough resources to afford a staff, isn’t burdened by the weight and responsibilities of its building, and with lots of kids. I say, sure, we all want that church. But perhaps your call and mine is to bring hope and vision for that kind of church into being, to start from where most of our churches are now and lead accordingly.
For without such a dream, where would we be? God places God-sized dreams in the hearts of leaders for a reason. They are to be cherished, cultivated, and worked toward, in full acceptance that the journey toward their fulfillment is long, and we may not see the fruits of our labor in our lifetimes.
Dreams are also for our best efforts. I know that you don’t expect this work to be easy. But not only is it worth giving your life to a God-given dream, you will find your greatest joy in its fulfillment, and even in failure. For as Marian Wright Edelman once said, “It’s better to fail in the work that matters than to succeed in the work that doesn’t.”
But when things get hard, promise me that you will ask for help. We aren’t meant to do this work alone.
In closing, I know that there is much to be said about living a balanced life, but as your bishop, I confess that I can’t speak to you about such a life from personal experience. I have never known balance, as much as I have been taught, and believe, about its importance. But I can speak to you of the joy, gratitude, heartbreak, necessary resilience, and dreams of a called life. I can speak to you of a relationship with Christ that is deeply personal and sustaining, even when, as St. Paul tells us over and over again, that the way of the cross is the way of lie.
Remember that the One who has brought you thus far will see you through to completion on the day of our Lord Jesus. And that everyone of us here is grateful that you said yes to the call.
1Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom–Stories that Heal (Riverhead Books, 1996).
2Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Voices in Exile (Fortress Press, 1996).
3“Santiago,” by David Whyte. Pilgrim @2012 Many Rivers Press.