Dear Beloved Community,
I write to you from a cool morning in the mountains of western North Carolina, where I have joined nearly 130 other ministers (including our Pastor Amy!) within Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches for a retreat called Oasis. Designed to offer space for spiritual renewal particularly for ministers to children, youth, college students, and young adults, Oasis has, for 20 years now, offered this space at Montreat Conference Center for several days in the winter. Sarah Shelton, longtime pastor (now retired) of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, Alabama, and I have shared the preaching duties, and we’ve had an incredible team of ministers to work with in planning and sharing our six gatherings for worship over these days.
Our theme for the week has been “Connections,” and we all have felt the invitation to connect deeply with our neighbors, our own belovedness, our relationships, our calling, and our God. We’ve explored what it means when connections fail, and listened to stories in scripture that return us again and again to the ties that bind.
I preached last night on calling, using the story of Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth from Luke 4:16-30, as my starting point. I thought I’d share a piece of that sermon with you, for all of us experience calling in some form. As one preacher likes to say, the calling of our lives can be the grand summoning of our lives or the ordinary ask of how we live at 11:00 on an early February morning, but either way, our calling is grounded first in the caller. And God’s callings should reflect their dream for this world: a dream of restoration, reconciliation, resurrection.
Here’s a piece of what I shared:
As I think of this story in light of Jesus’ calling to ministry, I’d like to think that part of what encouraged him in his calling in spite of the hometown reaction was the saints who’d come before him. Perhaps he drew prophetic strength from Isaiah, and pastoral sensibilities from Moses. Maybe he knew to weep for the children from Rachel, and how to embody lavish jubilee from Miriam. Were all those voices with him when he took his place in the pulpit, and found his place in the text, and claimed his place within the calling to which he had been called, and kept his place when the Way grew increasingly tense, and remained in his place at the very end? Were these the voices that he remembered when complaints started around him about how few children were showing up for Sabbath School, or what the teenagers in the synagogue were getting into, or how the young adults were pressing to change too much without respecting that “that’s just the way it is. Some things will never change!”?
I think so. I think it is with us too in our callings. I know that I wouldn’t be standing here if Ms. Loree hadn’t taken my childhood Sunday School questions seriously. If I hadn’t seen Colleen Burroughs preach on stage at Passport when I was a 7th grader. If I hadn’t known that women like Sarah Shelton had courageously stepped into the pulpit decades ago and created a whole new pastoral imagination that made room for people like me. If I hadn’t had Granddaddy Bill and David and Jane modeling emotionally healthy pastoring. If Pam hadn’t believed bossily in me. If Drs. Leonard and Tupper and Crainshaw and Lipsett and Dunn hadn’t thought I had something worth saying. If I didn’t have Courtney and Alan and Scott and Greg and Garrett to group text about this pastoring life every day. If I didn’t have amazing colleagues with which to serve, and a beloved community who takes my breath away in their love of God and neighbor, and a calling that brings me life. Theirs are the voices in my life that call me back in my discouragement, that return me to my place in my fear, that summon me to remember that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news” when I’d just as soon forget.
For you see, our calling by God is a calling in community, a calling that takes a village to do the summoning and a village to receive it. Calling is inherently connective. Poet Ross Gay says it so well: “The older I get, the more beautiful this becomes to me— how much, how completely, I am made by others.” Perhaps we’ll adapt that and say, “the longer I serve, the more beautiful this becomes to me – how much, how completely, my calling is made by others.”
You have that list of people too, I’m sure of it. And I want you to remember it.
Remember the Sunday School teachers who created space for your big imagination and your youth group leaders that still thought you were wonderful even though you were the annoying 7th grader at lock-ins. Remember the person who believed in you when you felt everyone else around you had given up. Remember your years in seminary, with all their all-nighters and doubts, and how wounding interpretations of scripture came crumbling down for you and redemptive ones built up instead. Remember your family and friends, and the deep self-knowing they helped you to find, either through their disregard or their encouragement. Remember your church kids and youth and young adults: the people who bring you back again and again to the work, particularly when your calling to the gospel offends not by who it keeps out but who it lets in. … Remember it when you’ll wonder: God, did I hear you right? Did I make a huge mistake? Was this really what you had in mind?
Oh how you will wonder if you are worthy.
And then, friends, you’ll remember the God who called you. You’ll remember the Mother Hen who gathers you up in her arms and the Good Shepherd who yanks you away from trouble and finds you when you’re lost. You’ll remember the Tree of Life in whose shade you find rest and the Holy Parent who always welcomes you home again and again.
You’ll remember Jesus – gardener and carpenter, storyteller and healer, liberator and lover, friend and fierce advocate – the light who enlightens us all, the One who saves us again and again, full of grace and truth.
You’ll remember the Holy Spirit – whose breath feels sometimes like a rushing wind and others like a gentle breeze, her spark like a glowing ember and a roaring flame setting your soul ablaze.
You’ll remember the holy mysteries of the faith: the dream of God that is here and not yet, that the last are first and first are last, that the deepest gladness comes not with having and hoarding but with giving it all away.
You’ll remember in all your senses the moments in your life when God was intensely present: the aroma of the campfire and the expanse of the inky, starry sky, the beeping of the hospital machines and the ache of that first night alone, the second your newborn child was first placed in your arms and the way your face hurts from laughing so hard for so long with soul friends, the taste of bread and wine on your lips and the waters of baptism drying on your skin.
You’ll remember the profound liberation of the good news in your life, unhooking you from old ways of scarcity and hustle and isolation and anger, and binding you instead to the One who gives you life in abundance.
You’ll remember that your calling is not your job, and that you have been called by God: not by the church, not by your church, not by our denomination, not even by yourself. Jesus doesn’t say count my sheep, grow my flock, expand my budget, fill my sanctuaries, publish my books, fill the coffers, no. Calling can be a calling home, but it can also be about moving as Jesus did: sometimes through the midst of the crowd and on the Way.
As you remember, you’ll begin to knit again the tapestry of your calling, connecting body and spirit and heart and community, coming alive with the worthiness of the God who calls you beloved.
Together in God’s work of Love,