The altar call

I find it interesting that in Rick Bragg’s autobiography “All Over But the Shoutin’”, he said that as a boy in church he waited and wanted for the feeling to come over him that he should go up to the altar to be blessed, to accept Jesus into his heart and his life. And he sat and sat and sat in that pew, and no special feeling came over him. He felt that it must be like being possessed, that he would be lifted up out of his seat and find himself walking up to the front of the church to be received into the arms of Jesus. He wanted that feeling, and it never came. So he never got up.

It isn’t a magical thing.
It isn’t a passive thing.

It is a human, on his or her own, of their free will, choosing to hand their lives over to Jesus, to follow along with him in God’s ways.

It isn’t something that happens to you.
It is something you do.

That turning becomes returning – daily, weekly, monthly. Every day we recommit, we choose.

He eventually left, feeling left out, feeling so low. He never understood that just wanting to go up was the call. God needs us to come to God on our own. It has to be conscious. God chooses us, but we have to choose God too.

The Burning Bush

Let’s look at the story of Moses and the burning bush.

Exodus 3:1-10

Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the back of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horeb. 2 And the angel of Jehovah appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. 4 And when Jehovah saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. 5 And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. 6 Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God. 7 And Jehovah said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; 8 and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 9 And now, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: moreover I have seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.
(American Standard Version)

Notice that Moses was simply walking along. This amazing sight just happened, unexpectedly. Notice that God only started speaking to Moses when he turned aside to look at it. From that encounter, Moses is called to lead Israel out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom.

How many burning bushes are in your life? How many places where God is are you ignoring? We have to stop and slow down and take time to notice where God is breaking through into this world. We have to make space and time for God, otherwise we’ll miss our call. Is God in the sound of the siren of the firetruck racing by? Is God in the cry of the small child wanting to be held? Is God the still small voice in the storm? God is in all of that and much more. There are many amazing things small and large that happen all around us all the time. It is only when we turn aside and give attention to them that God will then speak to us.

God doesn’t always appear to us as an angel. Sometimes God comes in dreams. Sometimes God appears as three strangers such as happened with Abraham in Genesis 18.

We have to slow down and treat everyone as if they might be an angel in disguise. In Greece, they always make sure to have sweets available because they don’t know if the person who shows up at their door is God. I’m not saying that everyone is holy. But I am saying that everyone has the possibility of having God within them. And I’m saying that our world would be a nicer place if we treated every single person with that level of love and attention.

God is always willing to reach to us and talk to us. We just have to stop and take the time to notice. Imagine what would’ve happened if Moses had not taken the time to stop and slow down. The Israelites would still be stuck in slavery. God called Moses from the burning bush to set people free. It was only when he turned aside that God spoke. He could have kept on walking. How many times do we keep on walking?

How many other releases from slavery are we missing out on because we don’t believe that we are being called by God? Notice that God didn’t free the Israelites on his own. He required Moses. He required Moses’ full participation. God uses all of us like that.

Is God calling you? Do you think you’re not special enough? Moses wasn’t special. He was an average person at an average time and in an average place before God called him. He became special because he said Yes to God. It was only after he said Yes and he started working with God that he became special.

You’re being called right now from the burning bush. Stop. Turn aside. Pay attention. God is calling you to free people from the slavery of guilt and shame and from playing small. God is calling you from within the slavery of fear and doubt and addictions. God is calling you.

Say Yes.

Just like Moses, you can do it, with God’s help.

Together, you can lead people out of pain and into life.

Bell towers

I keep being drawn to bell towers these days. Not real ones, but images of them. I didn’t even realize they were bell towers. I just knew they were four-sided tall towers, with window-like openings at the top.

What did I think they were? I didn’t. I just thought they were pretty. Now that I know what they are, I have to meditate upon it, because apparently it has a meaning and a message for me.

Anything can be a useful thing to meditate on. Anything can give you insight and teach you. But I find it especially significant to focus on things that repeat, because I see them as a sign from God to pay attention. God is saying “Here is something you need to notice.”

One of the images was at a friend’s house. Her husband had taken a picture of a bell tower at a church in downtown Nashville. It is just the bell tower, the sky, and birds. Something about it reminds me of the Episcopal retreat center on Monteagle Mountain. That place is old and musty and quaint and a little falling down. It has a Spanish mission style architecture, with red-tile roofing and white stucco exteriors.

This bell tower is like that, but I think there is more to it. There is something that hints at the idea of the Holy Spirit, with the birds flying nearby. There is something about the angle of the picture that makes me think the eye was suddenly jerked upwards, noticing this structure for the first time.

I’d admired this picture several times when I went over to visit, and then it was missing. They’d taken it to an art show to try to sell it. I felt the loss of it more than I realized. I didn’t know that I liked it that much until it wasn’t there. I asked my friend to have her husband make me a copy of it so I could have it at my house.

Then there is another picture. There is an etching that I’ve admired for at least eight years. It was tucked away under the stairs in an art gallery in Banner Elk, North Carolina. Every year, for years, I’d gone by this gallery and noticed that it was still there. I hoped that they would put it on sale. It was $100. I couldn’t really justify $100 for an etching. They can make more – it isn’t an original, a one-of-a-kind. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if I didn’t have it, I would feel the same loss, the same emptiness that I felt when my friend took that photograph away.

I remembered that I’d paid more than $100 for that photograph. That too can be reproduced. That too isn’t a one of a kind. But, hey, artists have to eat and pay bills, and I sure wish that people would pay me full price for what I make. So it was time to pony up and buy it.

It wasn’t until I saw the title written on the back of the etching that I knew it was of a bell tower. Two bell tower images, purchased within a few months of each other, both now in my house. I’d admired the etching for years and not even known what it was.

So what about bell towers? They are where the church uses to call the faithful to prayer. But “the call” can also mean the call from God. It can mean about the call to ministry, the call to service.

I need to listen to this message.

If I don’t respond to the call, I’ll feel empty. I’ll notice that it isn’t there and feel lost. This isn’t about iconizing the image of a bell tower – it is about heeding what it points to. It is about hearing the call and responding to it. It is about realizing that if I don’t respond, I’ll feel like I’ve missed out on my life’s purpose.

Does this mean I’m being called to the ordained ministry? No. Most certainly not. The more I read of the words of Jesus, the more I know with all certainty that the ordained ministry is a direct affront to Jesus’ wishes.

Jesus came to take away the power from the authorities. He removed all divisions between God and people, and between different groups of people. Jesus says we are all good, and we are all ministers, by virtue of our baptism.

So what, exactly? I feel like I’ll know when I get there. It would be nice to follow along a path that others have trod. It would be nice to be able to say what I’m headed towards, but there aren’t words yet. Perhaps it should just suffice to say that I’m headed towards God, and forget about the how or the what or even the when. Just do it, you know?

Meanwhile I’m going to fall and fail and trip a lot. Meanwhile I’m going to tick some people off and alienate some others. In short, I’m going to be human.

Basically, I’m like a bell tower. I want to call others to prayer. I want people to go towards God. If I can show them a path or light the way, awesome. Meanwhile, I have to hear and heed the call for myself.

But bell towers crumble, and get dirty, and birds start to nest in them. They stop working right.

Just like how I don’t want to get stuck iconizing the image of the bell tower, I don’t want people to focus on me. I don’t want people to think I’ve got all the answers, because I certainly don’t. I want people to know that they are forgiven and loved, and that they are supposed to go do the same.

Poem – the bell tower

The call won’t always be as easy
as a bell,
as a muezzin.

It isn’t always something that
all
can hear.

Is it like marching to the beat of a
different drummer?
What if you can’t
see
the drummer?
How do you know
where to go?

When all hear the call
and all move towards it,
it is easier.
But when
only I
alone
hear it,
I start to think that perhaps
I’m crazy.

But to not respond,
not move closer,
not act
in cadence
with that klaxon,
that clatter,

that is crazy.

I slip into that world so easily now.
It is like I’ve learned another language.
Or perhaps, I’ve finally remembered
my first one.

Answer – on intercessory prayer.

People often ask me to pray for them. Sometimes I hear an answer back of what they are supposed to do – some blockage to address, some wrong to be righted. They rarely want to hear this.

Perhaps they think their obligation is over just by asking for prayers. While it is important to ask for help, it is also important to be able to receive it. Receiving it in this case means listening to the answer to the prayer.

I think a lot of this resistance comes from the modern church structure. We are taught to be passive in our faith. We are receivers, not doers. Things happen to us. We don’t make things happen.

We are taught this when we are expected to be silent or to recite from a script during our worship service. This is the model we are given in the modern church service for how we are to interact with God, and how God interacts with us. Sit down. Shut up.

But this pattern is not God’s pattern. This pattern ensures docility and compliance. The Bible is filled with the exact opposite pattern. Our role models are active and willing participants in doing God’s will.

We are the hands and feet of God. When someone says “How could God let this happen?” the question really should be “How could we, the people of God, let this happen?”

So it makes sense that people don’t know how to react when I tell them the answer that I’ve heard. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to me even. Rarely is it something simple or obvious. This is in part how I know the answer isn’t from me. I couldn’t have made it up because I don’t even understand it.

Sometimes the answer is to do something. Sometimes it is to stop doing something. And I don’t always get an answer. That is part of it too. Sometimes we just have to live in the middle, in the not knowing, and have faith that God has it all under control.

When I pray for myself or someone else I’m often asking for a change in a situation. Sometimes I’m asking for a boon or a favor. But just like if I was asking for a boon from an earthly king, I have to understand that it might not be just, and it might not be right.

With an earthly king, the request may not be in his power. With our heavenly king, it is always in God’s power. The issue is that we can’t see things the way that God sees them. God knows the history of everything even before it happens. This is what God means by the title “the Alpha and the Omega.” Time means nothing to God.

So sometimes what we are asking for isn’t really what we want, or need. We think it is, but we don’t have the whole picture.

When we pray, sometimes God needs us to do our part to make the result happen. We should welcome this work as an opportunity to serve God. So when you hear an answer, whether you hear it yourself or it comes by way of an intercessor, see it as a blessing.

Three a.m., or, Codependent with God.

I woke at three a.m. on Thursday morning. I was completely awake. I had to go to the bathroom, but I didn’t have any of that middle of the night fog. I wondered if it was God waking me up.

I’m still suspicious of this. My previous minister made it clear what she thought of these middle of the night experiences. This is of course the same person who explained the story of Samuel being awoken by God in a Sunday school class. (It is in the first book of Samuel, chapter 3 if you are interested). So apparently in her mind, God only talked to people back in Biblical days. She was a bad role model for how to follow God.

I’m still getting over that, and learning I have to figure this path out for myself. It isn’t easy.

I felt around for the call. Was it a call, or not? Usually a call has a bit of an insistence to it, but not always. It is nice to think that God isn’t like a hungry insistent baby all the time. Maybe God just wants a cuddle. I think God sometimes just wants for us to spend time with each other.

Sometimes there is some urgency to a call – something needs to be done right away. I understand those calls. I don’t like them, but I understand them. I can recognize them.

I could get up and write. I always have more to write. I have a huge backlog of mostly finished pieces and three memo books of “seeds” to get me started if none of those appeal to me at the time.

But it was three a.m. I’d gotten in bed at 11, and it was probably midnight before I actually went to sleep. I don’t like being around myself when I’ve not had enough sleep.

Then I heard it. God reminded me that God made me, and knows how much sleep I need. So it wouldn’t be a problem. So it was a call.

And then we had a little wrestling match. Thankfully when I wrestle with God it isn’t anything like what Jacob went through. It never is all night, there never is an angel there, and nobody cheats. Plus, no new name to deal with. (Genesis 32:24-31)

This time I was reminded of the line in Isaiah, where he points out that the pot can’t tell the Potter what to do. (Isaiah 29:16)

But I countered with the story that Abraham talked God out of wiping a city off the map without giving the inhabitants a chance to redeem themselves. (Genesis 18:16-33)

I felt a “click” of sorts. It is like I rounded a corner in my relationship with God.

I am willing to be a partner with God. I’m just not willing to be God’s lapdog.

This is totally opposed to everything I’ve read from everyone who writes anything about spirituality. They write about self sacrifice and selflessness. I’m talking about self care.

Sure, God has my back. I’ve seen it often enough, when I’ve answered the call and everything has worked out. There was a time when a friend needed to talk and we stayed up so late I didn’t have time to study for the test that was scheduled the next morning. It turned out that the teacher postponed the test. Then I had a lot of expenses recently, and not much extra money coming in from my beaded jewelry sales. Yet somehow we have more money now than we did before the car repair and the chiropractor visits. So I know that God is always making up for whatever God asks me to go through.

But I still didn’t want to feel like I have to jump when God snaps a finger at me.

But then I do. Or do I?

I want to be obedient to God.

I don’t want to fall out of favor. This connection with God is important to me, and I don’t want to lose it.

But then I feel like I’m in a codependent relationship with God, or like God is the angry, abusive husband and I’m the harried housewife. Yes, God, I’ll do whatever you say. Oops, God got mad – it must have been my fault. If only I was better, God wouldn’t act like that.

Starting to sound familiar?

I don’t want that kind of relationship with God. The only way not to have that kind of relationship is to establish boundaries.

If God is love, then I have to believe that God wants only the best for me, and isn’t going to push me around. I have to believe that God wants me to stand up for myself. I have to believe that God is cheering me on for saying no, even to God.

Codependency and Christianity are intertwined. They don’t have to be. That is a human invention. It isn’t the way Jesus wants us to relate to God. Jesus is about us having a direct relationship with God, and not one based on fear. Respect, certainly, but not fear. The Hebrew word “yare’ ” is often translated as “fear” but it also means respect, admiration, reverence, or to stand in awe, according to The NAS Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon.

God wants willing participants in the plan to make the world better, not cowering creatures. God wants us to stand tall, not throw ourselves down face first in fear. Sure, we have to respect God. We aren’t in charge. We didn’t create ourselves. Hubris is a dangerous thing. But we are better servants when we are strong than when we are weak. We are better when we are willing than when we are afraid.

I think this is what that call was about. It wasn’t about doing anything. It was about becoming something.

Saying Birkat Hagomel in the middle of the night.

Last night was a little weird. I “heard” the words “Birkat Hagomel” repeatedly. I’ve been studying Jewish blessings and prayers, and I didn’t remember if that was the name of a prayer or some of the words in it. I wasn’t sure why those words were coming to me in the middle of the night. The words kept coming, and I got the impression that I needed to get up and say whatever prayer is associated with them. But the “voice” sounded different from what I’m used to, so I ignored it for a while. It has been a while since God has woken me up in the middle of the night. I’m out of practice.

It is really important for me to not be crazy with God. I’m bipolar. And I hear from God. Yup. I’ve tried to suppress this for a long time, but it isn’t going away. I’ve tested what I’ve “heard” and found that it always is true, so that is a good sign that what I’m hearing from is from God and not the voice of craziness. But it still scares me every time, because I know what going over the edge feels like.

It isn’t really a voice – I don’t hear words. It is as if they come into my head. So that is why I put parenthesis around “hear” and “voice” sometimes.

Last night I ignored the “voice”, thinking I’ll look up those words in the morning. I sat up for a bit, thinking about what I should do, and couldn’t find any paper in the dark to write down the words. I decided if it was important enough I’d remember it in the morning. I don’t want to get OCD about God. It is weird enough hearing from God in the middle of the night. It is weird enough hearing from God and having a mental health diagnosis. It has taken me years to reconcile those two truths.

I lay down, and it only got worse. I felt physically very bad. I had a sense of gloom. There was an ominous nature to it. I felt overwhelmed, trapped even. Was I having a heart attack? What is going on? I prayed some more. I decided to get up and figure things out. Sometimes my best clue as to what to do is whatever I feel compelled to do. It may sound strange, but I’ll pray and God will set my feet on the right path. I just have to wait until it is time.

I got up and went into my craft room. I got down my candle and lit it. I put down a pillow so I could kneel. I had the book I’ve been using to learn about Orthodox Judaism with me. It is “How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household” by Blu Greenberg. It has the prayers in Hebrew, then transliterated into the letters in English so I can sound it out, and then the translation in English. This is one more step than the siddur (prayerbook) that I have. It assumes I can sound out the Hebrew letters. I’m not there yet.

One reason I finally got up was that in the middle of all this I remembered that the “Birkat Hagomel” is a pretty serious prayer. It isn’t the words in a prayer, it is the name of a prayer. In the words of Blu Greenberg, it “is recited after having narrowly escaped danger, recovering from serious illness, or coming through safely after a long trip.” Remembering what prayer it was increased my feeling that I needed to get up and say it.

I didn’t know what I was being thankful for. I still don’t, really. But I knew I had to get up and say this prayer.

I had a feeling that I could just flip to it in the book and I’d find it. I thought that would be “testing” God, so I decided to look it up in the index. You know – if it really is a call from God, I’ll find it straight off. When I found what page it was on, I turned to it and smiled. I have two bookmarks in this book. One is where I’m reading. One just happens to be on the page for this prayer. God is always in charge.

The translation of the prayer is “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who grants favors to the undeserving, Who has granted me all kindness.” I’ve also seen it translated as “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who metes out goodness to the undeserving and Who has dealt kindly with me.”

Before it on the page is the Shehecheyanu, which is “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has granted us life and sustained us and brought us to this moment.” That seemed useful too, so I said it first.

I said the Birkat Hagomel three times, slowly, sounding out the transliteration. On the third time I tried to remember the transliteration while looking at the Hebrew letters. Also on the third time, my husband got up. I’m very self conscious about praying like this in front of anybody. It looks a little intense. It is a little intense. I don’t want to worry him. He came in just as I was finishing up and asked if everything was OK. I said it was, because I felt better. I no longer felt the crushing sense of dread that I felt before I decided to get up.

We went back into our bedroom and I thought about it for a little bit. I decided to tell him what was going on. We talked about it for a little, and I decided/felt that I needed to get up and go into the living room to sleep/pray. I’ve done this before. It isn’t that comfortable to sleep in the living room, so I can lie down and pray for a long time. Then when I’m done with praying, I’ll go to sleep.

My husband mentioned that he had been having a dream a little earlier that he felt he couldn’t wake from. He was trying to move or make noise to wake me up so that I could wake him up. This is what he does if he is having a nightmare. The interesting part is that he wasn’t having a nightmare. He just knew that he had to wake me up. This gives me the feeling that it was really important for me to get up.

I went to the living room and lay down on the futon to pray and then sleep. I didn’t know what I was going to pray about, but I just prayed. I felt the same way I feel when there is a big dangerous storm coming, and it is important to pray really hard. I don’t know what the storm is – all I knew is that I had that same feeling. Sometimes the “wind” that I hear isn’t the wind, but the winds of the Spirit.

I was reminded of the expectant feeling that the Israelites had when they were in Egypt, about to be delivered from slavery. They celebrated the first Passover in readiness, prepared to get up and run at a moment’s notice. Their preparations made it so that the Angel of Death passed over them and spared their first born. How many of us are willing to do something as crazy sounding as what they did? Paint a cross of blood over the door? Eat your meal while holding a weapon? That sounds kind of wild. But that is what God calls us to sometimes.

I felt that there is a big change happening. I felt that it was important to pray through it, like how a midwife helps a mother give birth by being there and supporting her. I’m not making the change happen. I’m watching it. I’m supporting it. I’m being conscious through it. I don’t know what the result is, but I know it is important.

It turns out that the Birkat Hagomel is also the prayer recited in the synagogue by the husband after his wife has successfully delivered a child.

I remembered a story of how a guy was compelled to get up and drive over to a friend’s house in the middle of the night. He felt he had to sit in his car and pray for his friend, but not go knock on the door. He kept thinking how odd this was, but he did it anyway. He drove home after his prayer was over. The next day he found out from his friend that he had had a terrible night and felt that he was like Jacob, wrestling with the Angel. In the middle of that time of trial, he started to feel better and stronger, and was able to finally go back to sleep. That was during the time that his friend, unbeknownst to him, was outside in his driveway praying for him.

It is this kind of story that encourages me to keep following this feeling. And it is the reason I’m sharing my story with you. I don’t know the resolution to this story yet. I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t know what God needed me to pray for. But I know that it is important to heed that call.

May you be blessed through this time of change, and may you be found awake, with your lamps ready. (Matthew 25:1-13)