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February 7, 2010 | 8:00 a.m.

Who’s Calling?

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 138
Isaiah 6:1–13

The nature of the calling can change over time, taking a person down pathways never anticipated. . . . What at the beginning seemed simple and clear can become ambivalent and complex as it unfolds. To develop a heart that is generous and equal to this complexity is the continual challenge of growth. One is urged and coaxed beyond the pale regions into rich territories of risk and promise.

John O’Donohue

You’ve had the experience, haven’t you? The phone rings at home, usually about the time you sit down for your evening meal. You answer, “Hello,” and a strange and unfamiliar voice begins to speak. It might be a recorded message, in which case you hang up in a huff. Otherwise, even with caller-ID you may not know who is calling you. Before you continue conversation you ask, “Who’s calling?”

Even when the caller identifies himself or herself, you may not know for sure if what you are told is true. But you take the response at face value, trust the veracity of what you have been told, you continue the conversation, during which you listen for clues to inform you about the nature of the call and how you might choose to respond to it.

Living in a world in which we are incessantly bombarded with all sorts of calls from all sorts of sources can be nerve-racking at best, especially when you don’t always know for sure or at all who’s calling. Adding to the stress of the situation are the demands made on us by the calls to do this, do that; think this, think that; feel, believe, try, choose, tell this or that; go here, go there. Even the most benign call of inquiring concern about our welfare requires a response of some sort. And these are just the calls that come to us from outside ourselves. Within ourselves there are the calls made to us by the various selves within each of us. As an anonymous poet put it years ago,

Within my earthly temple there’s a crowd:
There’s one of us that’s humble, one that’s proud,
There’s one that’s brokenhearted for his sins,
And one that unrepentant sits and grins.
There’s one that loves his neighbor as himself,
And one that cares for naught but fame and pelf,
From much perplexing care I would be free
If once I could determine which is me.

These disparate selves within us with their differing voices call to us and make their claims upon us. Together with the voices outside ourselves that call us, they form a confusing cacophony that sometimes makes it difficult for people of faith to determine where God is in all the noise and where in the midst of the noise is the voice of God calling us.

In 1964, Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist on the staff of a mental hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan, published a book entitled The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, the story of his work with three patients, each diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, each claiming he was Jesus Christ. He had hoped that by bringing them together they would see the absurdity of their delusions about themselves and divest themselves of them, or that two of them would do so in deference to the dominant personality of the third. To his surprise, he discovered that each insisted that he was Christ and that they decided that the Christ-like thing to do would be to divide up the responsibilities of Jesus and, as it were, “co-reign” as the Messiah. Rather than compete with one another, they decided to collaborate with one another in sharing this exalted status and identity. One became the Christ of Salvation, another the Christ of Miracles, and the third the Christ of Service, thus forming a “Society of Christs.” Not a bad accommodation actually, under the circumstances.

I remember that around the time that Rokeach’s book was published, a story was going the rounds among patients as well as other people who worked in mental hospitals about the doctor who asked some patients who they were. One said he was George Washington, another Thomas Jefferson. The third patient said he was Jesus Christ. When the doctor asked him who told him he was Jesus, the patient responded, “God.” Whereupon a voice from the other side of the room boomed, “I did not!”

Is God calling? How can you tell? When my family and I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, so that I could pursue a doctoral degree in pastoral counseling and psychotherapy, I needed to work to support myself and my family, including two young children. I had been a parish pastor, but there were no pastoral vacancies nearby. A person in charge of providing chaplains to state institutions in Kentucky and who happened to be my supervising professor invited me to consider filling the opening for an associate chaplain at a mental hospital not far from Louisville. It was the farthest thing from my mind, and I almost dismissed it out of hand. How could this possibly be a call from God? More likely it was a call from my supervising professor who was just taking care of business and into whose good graces I thought it wise to remain. Or was it the call of a paycheck? After all, I needed a job, because I had three mouths to feed in addition to my own.

I took the position. It was one of the more defining decisions and experiences of my life, akin to the one I had made years earlier to drop out of college and join the Army in combat in Europe in World War II. I have no idea whether it was God calling me to the chaplaincy in that state hospital. But in retrospect, I attribute to the providence of God the decision I made and the experiences I had there during a six-year tenure. And I shall not forget what the patients there taught me about courage and faith and suffering and the human condition and how God somehow was in all of that. Like the time I was conducting a worship service for a congregation of more than 400 patients and a patient interrupted by standing up in the middle of it and, in a loud voice, proclaiming to be Jesus Christ and then telling me to go to hell. And how, before I could think whether to respond much less how to respond, another patient got up and in a quiet but distinct voice said, “He did. He’s here, isn’t he? And I kind of think God’s here, too.” I concluded the service then with a benediction, for the gospel had been proclaimed by the dialogue between those two patients and overheard by the rest of us. I never say those words in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell,” but what I don’t think of and give thanks to God for the contribution those two mental hospital patients made to my theological education and to my spiritual growth.

All of which is to say that when we seek to understand God’s word to us in scripture, it is important to be aware of the data of our life’s experience we bring to that task and to realize that these data form the lens through which we see what scripture is showing us and the filter through which we hear what God is saying to us.

·    ·    ·

The king was dead. Uzziah had ruled Judah for nearly forty years. He had been a good king, as monarchs go, his reign bringing peace and prosperity such as the nation had not known since the days of Solomon. His death had thrown the nation into confusion, and the sense of strength and security inspired by his presence and rule were now replaced with fear and foreboding. The situation was aggravated by the weakness of Uzziah’s son, Jotham, and by the menacing threat posed by Assyria.

It is against this background that Isaiah’s visit to the temple is to be viewed. If one were to take literally the verbal description of Isaiah’s rather bizarre experience there, one might wonder if what we are dealing with here are the visual and auditory hallucinations of a psychotic individual. Rather, it was the writer’s way, through the use of graphic verbal imagery, of describing an otherwise indescribable, epiphany-like experience Isaiah had of the presence of a transcendent God, of the shaking of the foundations not only of the temple but of Isaiah himself, of the terror and fear for his well-being the awareness of that presence produced, of the acknowledgement of his flawed and sinful condition, of forgiveness and cleansing, and, finally, of being called by God for service to the people of Judah.

I wonder sometimes if we have so domesticated God in our understanding of who God is that we have lost a sense of God as mysterium tremendum, a sense of the wholly otherness of God, as theologian Rudolf Otto once put it. We no longer sing—

Before Jehovah’s awful throne,
Ye nations, bow with sacred joy;
Know that the Lord is God alone,
He can create, and he destroy.

Yet once Isaiah acknowledged the nature of his condition before God’s “awful throne” of judgment and then received the gift of God’s merciful forgiveness, he was then ready and quick to volunteer to serve God even before he knew the nature of the mission upon which he was to be sent, a mission to proclaim a message that at first blush didn’t seem to make much sense. He was so overwhelmed by gratitude for God’s grace that he was willing to place himself completely in God’s hands with single-minded devotion. God had taken care of his past; God could have his future.

Isaiah entered no disclaimers and offered no excuses, once he heard the question, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” he made himself available. Only after God had said, “Whom shall I send?” and received Isaiah’s response, “Send me!” did God say, “Go!” When it comes to God’s call to us, the issue is not our worthiness but our willingness. It is not always or necessarily our ability that matters but our availability. We can in all humility (real or mock) appeal to our lack of worthiness or ability to mask the possible reality of the contrariness within us that is reluctant or refuses to do what is called for.

We may not be sure that God is calling us to a particular job, in a particular place, at a particular time. But we can be sure that God is calling us to do the work of God’s core curriculum of life, summed up in the words of the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). This can be done irrespective of time, place, or circumstance, though the way it is done may vary.

How can I know who’s calling? How can I know whether it is God’s or some other voice? The point is not only whether we hear voices, but what do the voices tell us to be and to do? If the voice I hear calls me to violate the spirit of this core curriculum of God, then the voice is not God’s voice. But if the voice calls me to weep in compassion over a city and then go to a cross for the city over which I weep, if the voice calls me to serve the needs of others rather than always being absorbed in serving my own needs, if the voice calls me to extend hospitality to those whom the world casts out, if the voice calls me to be inconvenienced for the sake of the victims of violence, the abused, the oppressed, the hungry and the homeless, then I can afford to suspect that it is God who is asking, “Who will go for us and whom shall we send?” In a word, I will know who’s calling. My vocation will be clear.

In the late 1940s, Eithne Tabor was an eighteen-year-old patient in one of the nation’s largest mental hospitals. While there, she wrote poetry, which was subsequently published under the title The Cliff’s Edge: Songs of a Psychotic. One of her poems, entitled “Wish,” concludes with these words:

My wish
Is but to tell my story
To humanity—     
To let them know that God
Lives closer to the minds
Whose self-shields are destroyed.

My wish
Is for his love,
Even in insanity.

Her wish is God calling to me. Of that I am clear. Amen.