By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures features Jeremiah’s call story. Jeremiah’s ministry as a prophet took place during a uniquely difficult time, which included the fall and destruction of Jerusalem, as well as, a mass deportation of the population into captivity. Including Jeremiah and his scribe, who were forcibly taken hostage in Egypt. Nevertheless, he persisted in his prophetic ministry to the nations. Yet, it didn’t begin so boldly...
“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’”
God identified a task and commissioned Jeremiah to be God’s agent. However, as often is the case when one is called, Jeremiah had a bunch of excuses as to why he wasn’t the right person for the job:
“Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy’” (Jeremiah 1:6)
Then, God more or less shakes her head and tells Jeremiah to lose the excuses; after all, God will be with him every step of the way:
"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" (Jeremiah 1:7-8)
And then, God put out her hand and touched Jeremiah’s mouth. Scholar Anathea Portier Young suggests the word “touch” would be better translated as a “jolt” or a “shock”. It wasn’t a comforting touch, but probably hurt a bit, possibly left a scar or wound; just as Jacob’s hip hurt after he wrestled with God (Genesis 32). The Lord said to Jeremiah,
"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 1:10).
When God calls Jeremiah and touches his mouth, it forever changes who Jeremiah is and how he understood his role in the world. Because that is what our call stories do. They help us understand who and why we are, and how we are called to live out our lives in the world.
Yet call stories are not just for biblical characters. We each have our own call stories, and often more than one. I experienced my call to married life and to motherhood as a truth about myself, that I had always known, as much as I had always known my eyes were blue. My call to ordained ministry was a completely different matter, that felt more like a series of knocks on the door. God would gently knock on the door, I’d peak in and stare in awe for a moment, only to say, “Thanks, but no thanks”.
The first time I noticed a knock on the door, I was eleven and entranced with the Eucharist. I wrote a paper on how I wanted to be an Episcopal priest when I grew up. Then I realized my peers mostly wanted to be teachers and doctors, and that maybe I ought to be a JAG lawyer and serve in the Navy like the rest of my family.
I heard more knocking at the door when I was sixteen. I felt so strongly a call to spend my life’s work in service to Jesus, whether that be in youth ministry or non profit work. I’d go anywhere God wanted, just not parish ministry--parishes cared too much about buildings and money, and I watched my burned out priest struggle to manage parish dynamics. Ordained ministry felt like the only thing I couldn’t say yes to if God asked. Yet these knocks would show up like black flies in June. Each time I’d politely decline, and say, “Everything but…” .
Until finally, when I was twenty-two and led a retreat for young adults on vocational callings, and I heard this beautiful reflection from the dean on his priestly ministry, I realized this thing I kept saying no to, was the very thing God wanted me to explore. And so that time, I said yes, and began the journey of exploration with God, the Commission on Ministry, my parish, my family, and ultimately, it did lead to ordination.
We all have these experiences of calling, yet we often don’t use that language to describe them. Many of us have experienced callings to be married or intentionally single; to parenthood; to be teachers, doctors, social works, and a variety of other lay ministries. Yet often, we don’t spend enough time in the Church equipping all of our members with the tools needed to examine and reflect on our own call stories.
Last year, our Renewal Works Team, spent some time with a tool that helped us, in a fairly painless way, examine our spiritual journeys, and in turn, take a temperature reading on our relationship with God. It’s an exercise that I would invite each of us to do in the coming month before Lent begins on March 6. I think it will help us reflect on our own call stories, spiritual journeys, and take a pulse on how we are doing in our relationship with God.
I’ve prepared handouts (download here) of the life-line exercise, and sometime in the coming weeks, take twenty to thirty minutes and engage in this spiritual inventory. Take some time to think back over your life. Select some key events and people that have had an impact on you, for better or worse, and place a word or symbol for each in the appropriate place on the drawing. Then after you’ve done this, look at the life line again and consider your relationship with God over the course of your life. Afterwards, take a few moments to notice where key events and people in the first line are related to your experience of the nearness or absence of God. How is your life and faith, different than it was five years ago? What are the themes that you notice?
No matter how many times you’ve done this or a similar exercise, your life line will never be precisely the same. Because we are always growing and changing in our relationship with God, through both good and difficult times. God wants us to continually be gaining a deeper understanding of who and why we are, and how we are called to live out our lives in the world. God wants us to stay as fresh, as deeply engaged in our spiritual lives, and in our understanding of our callings, as we would in our marriages, parenting, and commitment to our jobs and our communities.
As we prepare to do this work, I’d like to close with the prayer of self dedication from the prayer book:
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our
imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer p.832