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.

Poem – Storm in my heart

There’s a
storm in my heart
for the first time
since he was little.

It’s different every day for supper
now that we are the same.

He’s got a call.
Others went on to the shelter
but not him.
No sir.
No how.

He hears the voice too.
I would have saved him that tug
that pull.
I would have saved him
the sleepless nights.

When they were stubborn
he had to work harder.
His time is not his own.
Not now.
Not anymore.

We are the same,
he and I

and I’m sad.

I hoped he’d be deaf to the voice,
that voice
that won’t take no for an answer.

That voice will lead him
blind and stumbling
through deserts and desolation.

But that voice will also
never let him fall
never let him fail
never get him lost
in the sea or on the shore.

It is a hard life,
this life of the listener.

I’d hoped he would be spared.

But quietly
I’m glad
to have a fellow traveler.

(About a third of this was inspired by the predictive text feature on my Kindle. It isn’t enough for me to make it a “predictive text poem” but enough that I think it is worth noting.)